ALBANY — Three games in four days.
Three halftime leads.
That’s how the UAlbany men’s basketball program wrapped up its opening burst of action to start its much-delayed start to the 2020-21 season, as the Great Danes fell 70-65 Tuesday at SEFCU Arena in non-conference action to Niagara.
Score is kept for a reason.
But the Great Danes left this opening batch of games with answers to a number of the questions they brought into Saturday’s opener against UMBC as a program with a significantly revamped roster.
“The pieces are fine,” UAlbany head coach Will Brown said of his team. “We’ve just got to take the next step.”
“We’ve just got to keep playing as a team, keep getting used to playing with each other,” said UAlbany junior CJ Kelly, who is one of eight new Great Danes this season.
UAlbany (0-3) led Niagara (3-3) 35-30 at halftime, but played catch-up for nearly all of the second half after Niagara made eight of its first nine shot attempts. Playing without expected leading scorer Cameron Healy — who Brown said is battling an injury in the “hip-and-rib area” — UAlbany was able to work its way to a 63-63 tie with less than three minutes to go and had two shot attempts miss that would’ve given the Great Danes the late lead. Niagara, though, did enough to leave the court with its third consecutive victory after a 0-3 start of its own.
Brown pointed to Niagara’s hot start to the second half — and the “very little resistance” his Great Danes showed during that stretch — as the pivotal moments in Tuesday’s game.
Late in the contest, though, showed the gap in game experience between Niagara and UAlbany.
Down one point after a miss in the final minute and with only a few seconds separating the game clock and shot clock, UAlbany waited too long to send Niagara to the foul line. The Great Danes didn’t force the ball to one of Niagara’s lesser shooters — redshirt senior Justin Roberts, a 92.3% free-throw shooter this season, took and made the foul shots with 10.2 seconds left — and Brown said the Great Danes should’ve fouled “five seconds earlier” than they did.
“I probably needed to get us to foul a little earlier, for sure,” said Brown, whose team’s preseason was constantly disrupted with pandemic-related pauses that cut into time to work on everything, including end-of-game situations. “I’ll take the blame for that.”
Meanwhile, after Roberts made his free throws, Niagara — which has played and practiced more than the Great Danes — executed head coach Greg Paulus’ decision to foul the Great Danes before they could attempt a game-tying 3 in the final seconds.
UAlbany junior Jamel Horton missed the free throw, and Niagara made a couple more to ice the win.
“Just found a way to make one more play down the stretch there,” said Paulus, whose squad received 16 points from Kobi Nwandu.
The result was disappointing for UAlbany, but Tuesday’s game also showed flashes of why this season’s Great Danes should flirt with contending in the America East Conference.
Kelly scored 17 points. Graduate student Kellon Taylor had a dozen points and 11 rebounds, and the forward continued to open up UAlbany’s offense with his ability to lead the fast break after controlling a defensive rebound. Redshirt senior Jojo Anderson and Horton, the team’s point guards, each delivered impressive stretches, with Anderson scoring all nine of his points in the opening minutes and Horton adding 10 and playing very well after halftime.
UAlbany, though, needs more seasoning — and it needs Healy back, as well as a healthy Adam Lulka (broken nose) who needed to exit early from Tuesday’s game after taking a hit to the face.
Brown suggested that Healy and Lulka should be back for UAlbany’s next scheduled games, which are in early January against preseason conference favorite Vermont. While it’s possible UAlbany could try to schedule another non-conference game before it plays Vermont, Brown said the Great Danes could opt to utilize the remainder of 2020 on the practice floor.
“The exciting part for me now is practice,” Brown said. “I’m really looking forward to practice because, now, we have a couple of games under our belt, [so] I think now we can really focus on getting in the gym and getting better.”
Roberts 4-5 2-2 12, Nwandu 7-15 2-2 16, Hammond 3-11 7-7 14, Kuakumensah 3-8 1-1 7, Kratholm 3-3 0-0 6, Solomon 3-3 0-0 8, Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Traore 0-1 0-0 0, Cintron 1-2 2-2 4, MacDonald 1-2 0-0 3. Totals: 25-50 14-14 70.
Rizzuto 2-4 0-0 6, Taylor 6-8 0-2 12, Lulka 1-2 0-0 2, Kelly 6-10 2-3 17, Anderson 3-7 0-0 9, Hank 0-0 0-0 0, Hutcheson 2-8 1-2 5, Shafer 2-4 0-0 4, Champion 0-1 0-0 0, Doles 0-0 0-0 0, Horton 2-6 5-7 10. Totals: 24-50 8-14 65.
Halftime score: UAlbany 35, Niagara 30. Three-point shooting: Niagara 6-17 (Roberts 2-3, Nwandu 0-2, Hammond 1-6, Kuakumensah 0-2, Solomon 2-2, MacDonald 1-2), UAlbany 9-20 (Rizzuto 2-4, Kelly 3-5, Anderson 3-4, Hutcheson 0-2, Shafer 0-1, Champion 0-1, Horton 1-3). Rebounds: Niagara 24 (Hammond 7), UAlbany 23 (Taylor 11). Assists: Niagara 12 (Nwandu 4), UAlbany 16 (Horton 4). Turnovers: Niagara 11, UAlbany 12. Total fouls: Niagara 15, UAlbany 15. Technical fouls: None. Fouled out: None. Attendance: 0.