ALBANY — University at Albany women’s basketball coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee thought the transition would have gone smoother. Then again, she is an optimist by nature, and an inpatient one at that.
“I go into every season,” the first-year Danes coach said, “thinking I’m going to be undefeated.”
But that was asking just a tad too much of this UAlbany team, winner of an unprecedented five straight America East titles and coming off its first NCAA Tournament win, an upset over Florida.
Consider the Danes lost:
— Their coach, Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, who built the UAlbany program from an also-ran into a regional power. (“Coach Abe” turned a 7-win Central Florida team into a 20-win program in her first season.)
— Shereesha Richards, merely the best player in program history.
— Projected starting point guard Zakiya Saunders, who transferred to Central Florida.
— Vocal leader Erin Coughlin, a two-time captain who is now a graduate assistant manager for the team.
“We had a new staff come in, and everything changed,” junior Tiana-Jo Carter said. “It took a while to figure everything out,”
The Danes started 3-5 overall, and 3-3 in conference.
And Friday, UAlbany — 20-11, 12-4 in conference and winner of 11 of its past 12 games — will be back where it always seems to be, hosting the America East final, when it takes on Maine at 4:30 p.m. at SEFCU Arena.
They figured it out.
“You could definitely see the light bulbs click,” “Coach Mac” said. “Every day as a coaching staff we see more buy-in.”
Part of that transition was the team absorbing and believing in a new system. But also playing a role was players leaning on their past.
“Our team collectively came together and we said, ‘We’re tired of losing. This is not our team,’ ” Carter said. “We reminded ourselves of where we’ve been and how we got there.”
While the players could draw on their winning culture, many were traveling new roads — and more than just learning the intricacies of man-to-man defense. For senior Imani Tate, the transition meant learning how to be a scorer first, and to take a leadership position she never had to before.
“My past three years, I was told to lead by example,” said Tate, who leads the Danes in scoring at 19.1 points per game, to go along with 4.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists.
Tate said she realized that all the transition — new coach, new leaders, new everything — could be handled by the team was not when she had a great game, but when she went down for four games in December and other players took on enhanced roles in her absence.
“The moment I knew it was going to work is when I got injured,” she said. “I know my teammates could step up.”
It took time. When a program has won five straight titles, you can understand if players may look at a newcomer who wants to do things differently sideways. But each coach, regardless the program they inherit, has to do things their way.
All teams take a long road to a conference title game. The road for Coach Mac’s team was longer than she had hoped, longer than some of Coach Abe’s team.
And yet here it is, where the Danes always seem to be.
“We had to adjust a lot,” junior Jessica Fequiere said.
Now on the eve of perhaps another title, what does the guard/forward think of her team?
“I believe we have the best player in the conference in Imani Tate,” she said. “We just have to follow.”
Some things don’t change.
ALL GAVE ALL
Marquis Wright drained a desperation 3 at the buzzer Monday night in what is likely the last shot of his college career. He then fell to the Times Union Center court in tears, as the shot left Siena one point short of extending the MAAC title game against Iona to a second overtime.
They were not tears of shame, or at least should not have been. Almost to a man, Siena was a hobbled team, beaten down by injury and a tumultuous season that could have seen the 17-17 Saints fold at several points. But there they were, playing before a national audience on a Monday night, the
TU Center sounding — as Mike MacAdam noted — like it did in the days of Kenny, Edwin, Ronald, Alex and Ryan.
Siena’s four seniors — Wright, Brett Bisping, Javion Ogunyemi and Lavon Long — leave without an NCAA appearance. But after this season, and their resilience this MAAC Tournament (down 17 against Monmouth), they can depart with their heads held high. No tears.
MVP (MOST VALUABLE PLAYS)
David Nichols has been the biggest impact player for the University at Albany. Devonte Campbell has been the biggest difference maker since he was inserted into the lineup and assumed the role of defensive stopper.
But for all the flash the Great Danes are capable of, perhaps the biggest sequence of the year was turned in by the team’s ultimate plugger, forward Greig Stire.
In Monday night’s America East semifinal, UAlbany’s 13-point second-half lead had been whittled to 1. If your thoughts had turned to the Great Danes blowing a 21-point second-half lead the last time they visited Long Island, well, you had a lot of company.
Then Stire hit a layup to stop the bleeding. Then with 1:17 left and with four fouls, he took a charge on Bryan Sekunda. UAlbany stabilized, and won 63-56.
The CBA grad did not fill up the stat sheet — 7 points, 5 rebounds — but he made the biggest plays when they mattered most. It will take plays like that to beat Vermont at their place Saturday.
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