UAlbany, a No. 16 seed, once gave scare to No. 1 UConn

In 2006, UAlbany held a double-digit lead over Connecticut in the second half
UAlbany coach Will Brown has guided the Great Danes to another NCAA tourney appearance.
UAlbany coach Will Brown has guided the Great Danes to another NCAA tourney appearance.

For all the local basketball fans hoping for another big NCAA tournament upset this week when 14th-seeded University at Albany takes on third seed Oklahoma at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, don’t forget one of the greatest near-upsets in tournament history.

On Friday, March 17, 2006, at what was then called the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, a crowd of 19,990 watched incredulously as the 16th-seeded Great Danes came precariously close to knocking off No. 1 UConn.

For more than 30 minutes, the Great Danes had the Huskies on the ropes, until a late surge against an emotionally drained UAlbany squad led to a 72-59 UConn victory.

The Great Danes’ surprising performance was so unexpected that CBS pulled all of its regional coverage to concentrate on what almost became the first upset of a top seed by the 16th seed.

UAlbany led by 12 points with 11:33 remaining, but the Huskies put together a late 28-5 run against an exhausted group of Great Danes.

This was the first NCAA tournament squad in UAlbany history, and included quite an all-star cast. Jamar Wilson, the America East Conference Player of the Year, is arguably the greatest player in program history. He would go on to become the Great Danes’ all-time leading scorer with 2,164 points.

Also in the starting lineup was 7-foot-1 center Kirsten Zoellner, a Boston College transfer whose size and bulk helped equalize the play up front. Zoellner had an inconsistent season, and many fans expected more from him because of his huge frame. In many games that season, he collected too many early fouls, but this time, the refs let him play.

Wilson ended up scoring 19 points and added six steals. Zoellner scored 12 points and held his own on the boards against a very physical UConn frontcourt.

Current Siena College assistant coach Lucious Jordan, who transferred to UAlbany from Loyola, also scored 12 points.

That team included players like Jason Siggers, Brian Lillis, Levi Levine and Jon Iati. Siggers would become much more of a force the next season, joining Wilson in a high-scoring backcourt, while Lillis and Iati also earned much more playing time a year later.

The Great Danes came up with the slogan “Why Not Us?” They wore T-shirts with that saying all week in preparation for the game.

In the first half, UAlbany’s mixture of matchup zone and man-to-man defense created 11 UConn turnovers.

“They shocked us into such a state,” said former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun after the game. “They put us into a state where we had our poorest offensive performance in 20 years. You’ve also got to give Albany credit for all our turnovers. It looked like we tried to go 1-on-5, and like we never were coached before.”

Calhoun, who knew a lot about mid-major programs after spending several years as the head coach at Northeastern, was impressed by the Danes’ effort that day.

“Albany gave us everything they had. Albany was as magnificent for the first 30 minutes as we were in the last 10 minutes. I never saw us look like that. That’s what this tournament is all about. We drew the entire country into seeing history being made, but fortunately for us, history was not made.”

The player that ended up dashing the Great Danes’ hopes in that game was Marcus Williams, who scored 14 of his game-high 21 points in the second half, mostly in a nine-minute spurt.”

In light of the national exposure the Great Danes got this week when junior Peter Hooley nailed a game-winning three-pointer with 1.6 seconds left to beat Stony Brook in the America East Conference tournament championship game, UAlbany head coach Will Brown was asked what he remembered about his first NCAA tournament game and the fabulous near upset.

“What I remember most about the UConn game was that I knew going in that we were ready to play against arguably the most talented team in the country,” Brown said this week.

“I thought if our guys bought in and believed, they would catch them [the Huskies] sleep-walking, I thought we would be overlooked — not by the coaches — but by the players as just a formality because we were the first-round opponent.”

Brown will never forget the way the way the game panned out.

“Early on, we played well, and I thought we had a chance. I think UConn thought we were going to go away, but we never went away.”

The Great Danes stymied many of the Huskies’ talented players that afternoon, but Williams saved the day.

“What stands out most for me are the threes that Williams hit late in the game. He took over the game for them,” Brown said. “One of the things we wanted them to do was shoot from the perimeter, but we dared them too much. You have to play the percentages. They had such an advantage talent-wise and size-wise. You had to pick your poison.”

Brown said his team gave it everything it had.

“For almost 35 minutes, the formula worked,” he recalled. “Then, a combination of us running out of gas and them putting their foot on the gas pedal turned the game around.”

Categories: College Sports

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