ALBANY — She admits that “some days are harder than others,” but Lucia Decortes is doing her best to make the best of a tough year.
All that effort, something she prides herself on giving for the UAlbany women’s basketball team on the court, has paid off for the junior forward from Italy through her team’s first three games.
“I can’t really take her off the floor right now,” UAlbany head coach Colleen Mullen said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters.
Decortes played sparingly as a freshman and carved out a small role as a sophomore, but earned a spot in UAlbany’s starting lineup this season. During the Great Danes’ 1-2 start that included a win against Seton Hall of the Big East Conference, the 6-foot-3 forward averaged 8.3 points and 5.7 rebounds in 31.7 minutes per game.
“She’s just been taking her role to another level,” said sophomore Helene Haegerstrand, the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.3 points per game.
As Decortes sees it, there’s a reason for that jump in production.
“Because of COVID, this whole situation, I always play like it’s the last game,” Decortes said. “I give everything I have.”
And Decortes needed to give up a lot away from the court this year. The degree to which the pandemic raged in Italy in March, when college campuses were largely emptying in the United States, left Decortes to decide not to head home for the spring and summer. Instead, she stayed in the United States, and spent the time she couldn’t on campus at the home of her boyfriend’s family.
That means Decortes hasn’t been with her family since the summer of 2019, and likely won’t see them until some time in 2021 after her school year is complete at UAlbany.
“It was hard, at first. You kind of get used to it,” Decortes said of the separation from her family in Bonate Sopra, Bergamo. “It’s sad to say, but you get used to it.”
After electing not to return to her home country — and with the coronavirus situation in the United States keeping most people at their homes — Decortes spent more time than usual working on gaining strength and improving her conditioning. The house where she stayed had a gym in its garage, and Decortes took advantage of the weights there and kept up a running regimen.
“I was focused,” Decortes said. “I just wanted to get better and be ready.”
And Decortes was ready when she made it back to campus. While many college basketball players have needed to spend large portions of the preseason and early season simply getting in proper shape after such an unusual offseason, Mullen said Decortes was the rare player simply able to get to work improving her on-court skills.
“She was able to get better, faster,” said Mullen, whose team starts America East Conference play this Saturday at UMBC.
Decortes said that her improved “effort is the biggest thing” contributing to her solid start. But she’s also stronger and has a better understanding of what’s required from her in Mullen’s system, and those two things played a significant role in her ability to step into a starting spot.
“I have more confidence, for sure,” Decortes said.
Part of that comes from the way her teammates view her. Decortes is someone that her teammates like to see do well — “Lucia’s really the best person,” Haegerstrand said — because of what her personality adds to the team’s chemistry, on and off the court. Haegerstrand said it’s been encouraging to see UAlbany’s “best teammate” enjoy on-court success after freshman and sophomore campaigns during which she only scored 71 total points.
“And she knows we believe in her,” Haegerstrand said.
Decortes said there are days where “I really miss my mom — and her food.” She’s confident, though, that she made the right decision in staying in the United States rather than traveling back home.
“We know it was the best solution, staying here, and it was the safest one,” said Decortes, whose home country is again experiencing a massive surge in coronavirus cases.
The energy Decortes has put into her basketball career has helped her on and off the court. The extra time working on her fitness and skills keeps her busy and focused on something other than a pandemic that’s disrupted so much for many this year, and the bonus comes with the minutes, points and rebounds she’s able to contribute for her team.
“Her improvement from last season is just astonishing,” Mullen said.