ALBANY — It was the defining play from a weekend that the UAlbany men’s basketball team wants to remember as one that started its charge up the America East Conference standings.
After NJIT junior Miles Coleman poked away the ball from UAlbany junior Jamel Horton during Saturday’s first half at SEFCU Arena, the visiting player secured possession with no UAlbany players between him and the basket stationed some 70 feet away.
But UAlbany junior Antonio Rizzuto was in the area of where Coleman made his steal — and playing in his first game since being named the Great Danes’ captain, Rizzuto showed why he’d earned that honor.
As Coleman took off, Rizzuto chased. Around the 3-point line, Rizzuto caught up to Coleman, then was able to move slightly in front as the players reached the foul line. Running out of ground to turn to face Coleman to defend him, Rizzuto reached toward the basketball with his right arm, awkwardly jamming the ball between his bicep and forearm before gaining enough possession of the ball to flip it to teammate Chuck Champion before momentum carried him out of bounds.
“I just didn’t want him to get the two points,” Rizzuto said.
But he wanted three points for his team. So as Champion dribbled up the court, Rizzuto chased behind him, calling out the graduate student’s name to alert him he was ready for a pass, and then launched an in-rhythm 3-pointer once Champion delivered the ball.
The shot, of course, was on target.
In between UAlbany’s games against NJIT, which the Great Danes won 83-75 and 83-71, the team’s coaching staff showed the clip of Rizzuto’s highlight sequence to the players over and over as an example for the rewards hustle can bring.
“We hit play, rewind, play, rewind, play — about a half-dozen times before our shootaround,” Brown said after Sunday’s game.
Rizzuto said he was “lucky” the sequence worked out as successfully as it did. He’d wanted to try to draw a charge from Coleman, but couldn’t outrace Coleman enough to make that possible, so made a swipe for the ball to try for the steal or to give a foul — and got the better of those two possibilities.
“Sometimes,” Rizzuto said, “when you work really hard, things like that happen.”
Graduate student Kellon Taylor said that was the message — “Basically, just don’t give up on a play” — the UAlbany coaching staff tried to deliver in showing the sequence so many times before Sunday’s game.
“And we all have to follow suit,” Taylor said. “And, when we do that as a team, we come out with wins.”
Against NJIT, UAlbany — which started the season 1-5 before sweeping the Highlanders — had its two best offensive showings of the season. The Great Danes were shooting 42% from the field and averaging 63.7 points per game heading into its weekend series with NJIT, and UAlbany made 56.1% of its shots in scoring 83 points each game against the Highlanders.
Rizzuto contributed to that, scoring a team-best 35 points on 12 of 23 shooting during the two games. On the season, Rizzuto is averaging a career-high 12.9 points per game on a career-best 48.6% shooting, but Brown said to “forget about what he’s done offensively” for the Great Danes this season
“He has been unbelievable defensively,” Brown said. “He has just shut guys down.”
Rizzuto has regularly guarded the opposing team’s top perimeter threat, whether that player is a point guard or a wing. Against NJIT, the 6-foot-3 Rizzuto spent some time defending 5-foot-10 point guard Zach Cooks, but his main focus was slowing down 6-foot-4 junior Dylan O’Hearn, NJIT’s leading scorer on the season heading into the weekend at 14.6 points per game.
And . . . O’Hearn left SEFCU Arena after scoring four total points on 2 of 8 shooting.
“Right now, ‘Tone’ [Rizzuto] has got a nice swagger about him,” Brown said. “He wants to be that guy that just locks guys down.”
More than that, Rizzuto wants to win — and Saturday’s hustle that led to a steal and then a 3-pointer was a clear example of that desire, and of the “maximum effort” and “unbelievable competitiveness” the junior from York, Pennsylvania brings to the court each day.
“That’s what he’s all about,” Brown said.