Bigger is often better in basketball, but Hartford preferred to go smaller Saturday against the University at Albany.
With a lineup that included four guards, the scrappy Hawks took the lead for good with just over five minutes left and held off the Great Danes, 68-63, in an America East Conference game before a crowd of 3,069 at SEFCU Arena.
Albany led by as many as 11 points in the first half, but the Great Danes had difficulty matching up against the smaller Hawks, who constantly beat Albany on back-door plays and also forced 15 turnovers with a trapping press.
Joe Zeglinski, who scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half, connected on a three-point basket and was fouled with 5:07 to go. Although he missed the free throw, his trey put Hartford in front for good, 59-56.
Brian Lillis hit an eight-footer in the lane for Albany, but Michael Turner made a pair of free throws with 2:37 to go to push the Hartford lead back to three, 61-58.
After Brent Wilson converted a layup with 2:18 remaining on the clock, Turner scored on a back-door layup with 1:53 to go.
Lillis was fouled on the ensuing possession and made one of two free throws to cut the deficit to 63-61 with 1:35 left. Jon Iati grabbed the rebound of the missed free throw and the Great Danes had a golden opportunity to tie the score when Lillis set up Jerel Hastings for a baseline drive. Hastings missed the layup, however, and Anthony Minor scored on another backdoor layup with 40 seconds left to put Hartford in front, 65-61.
Wilson misfired on a three-pointer, and Lillis missed the put-back opportunity with about 30 seconds left. Morgan Sabia then made one of two free throws to give Hartford a 66-61 cushion with 23.8 seconds to go.
Although Lillis drove the lane for a basket that trimmed the Albany deficit to 66-63 with 17.2 seconds left, Sabia clinched the win with a pair of foul shots with 12.2 seconds left.
“That’s the best win we’ve had in the two years I’ve been here,” said Hartford head coach Dan Leibovitz. “Albany is a team we have a great deal of respect for. They are still the champion until somebody else beats them, and the America East Conference championship still goes through Albany.
“We feel very fortunate to win this game. We played with a smaller lineup against quite a few teams this year. We can’t go big. We can only get smaller. I think the difference in the game was that we held [Jon] Iati and Wilson in check. You’re not going to stop Lillis from scoring. He’s too determined.”
“They make you work, because they’ve got four guards out there,” said Iati. “It’s very frustrating for us. College basketball players have to make open shots, and we didn’t.”
Albany, which won the first meeting, 73-63, on Jan. 19, jumped out to a 31-20 lead on a Josh Martin three-point play with 2:13 left in the first half. Hartford closed the gap to five, 33-28, at intermission, and the Hawks matched the Danes, shot-for-shot, throughout the second half. Zeglinski’s three-point shooting was the key. He made five of seven shots from beyond the arc.
“He’s a very special young man. He did the same thing against Binghamton,” said Leibovitz of Zeglinski, a 6-foot sophomore. “He’s a winner.”
Albany head coach Will Brown tried to match up against the smaller Hawks, but it didn’t work.
“Their pressure bothered us, and we gave them some momentum,” he said. “Nobody wanted to handle the ball. I probably should have had Brian Lillis go back and handle the ball more, but he was already doing everything else for us.
“I think the key was that we couldn’t stop them defensively. They shot 50 percent from the floor. We let Zeglinski knock down three three-pointers on us late in the game. I think we took a step backwards in terms of our defense. We did a poor job of matching up to Hartford. I thought we’d get enough stops to win the game, but we didn’t. We had our opportunities.
“We got beat several times with the backdoor play, and we practiced that for the last couple of days,” Brown continued. “They went small against us, and they kept getting smaller and smaller. That caused us some major problems. It was a wasted opportunity for us.”
Lillis led Albany (6-5, 11-12) with 17 points and a pair of steals. Brian Connelly and Wilson added 10 points each.
Turner and Sabia contributed 13 and 10 points, respectively, for the 7-4, 13-13 Hawks.
Albany plays at Vermont Monday night.
Sabia 3-8 3-4 10, Minor 4-7 1-1 9, Von Rosenberg 3-7 2-2 9, Turner 3-3 7-10 13, Zeglinski 7-13 0-1 19, Torres 0-1 0-0 0, Glowiak 1-2 3-3 6, Estes 1-3 0-0 2. Totals: 22-44 16-21 68.
Hastings 2-4 0-0 4, Connelly 5-9 0-0 10, Turley 3-4 1-3 7, Lillis 8-9 1-2 17, Ambrose 1-6 1-2 3, Martin 3-7 3-3 9, Iati 1-6 0-0 3, Wilson 3-10 2-2 10, Covington 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 26-55 8-12 63.
Halftime: Albany 33-28. Three-point goals: Hartford 8-18 (Sabia 1-5, Von Rosenberg 1-3, Zeglinski 5-7, Torres 0-1, Glowiak 1-2); Albany 3-19 (Ambrose 0-2, Martin 0-3, Iati 1-5, Wilson 2-9). Rebounds: Hartford 23 (Von Rosenberg 7), Albany 33 (Connelly 6). Assists: Hartford 12 (Von Rosenberg 6), Albany 12 (Lillis 4). Personal fouls: Hartford 15, Albany 18. Officials: Robert Adams, Jeffrey Anderson, Gray Pucino. Attendance: 3,069.
More from The Daily Gazette: