The combination of a four-game losing streak and a pandemic-related pause kept the UAlbany women’s basketball program from recording a win for five consecutive weeks at one point this season.
Saturday’s 46-39 victory at UMass Lowell, though, was the Great Danes’ third win in eight days — and UAlbany gets the chance 1 p.m. Sunday to pick up a fourth consecutive America East Conference victory.
“I’m just so proud of the way we finished that game,” UAlbany head coach Colleen Mullen said during a phone interview with The Daily Gazette after Saturday’s seven-point road win at Costello Athletic Center in Lowell, Massachusetts.
In a low-scoring matchup between teams that both average fewer than 60 points per game, UMass Lowell (7-4, 8-6) had used a 5-0 run to cut the UAlbany (4-3, 5-6) lead to 37-36 with 2:30 to go in regulation. The Great Danes, though, answered with a 3-pointer from sophomore Grace Heeps — who made several key shots in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s win against New Hampshire — to retake a two-possession advantage.
“It was such a big shot,” Mullen said of Heeps’ only basket of the day. “It gave us some breathing room.”
After a defensive stop, UAlbany junior Lucia Decortes scored her only basket of the day to put UAlbany up 42-36, and senior Kyara Frames followed another defensive stop with two made free throws to cap a crucial 7-0 run. UMass Lowell freshman Jaini Edmonds had a three-point play to bring her team within 44-39 in the final 10 seconds, but UAlbany sophomore Helene Haegerstrand answered with two free throws to provide the game’s final points with only seconds to play.
UAlbany made the bus trip Saturday to UMass Lowell, and Mullen said her team “certainly didn’t really have our legs” early in the game. UMass Lowell led 12-8 after the first quarter, and UAlbany only scored two points in the opening 6:28 of the second quarter. But, then, UAlbany scored the half’s final eight points as part of an 11-0 run that extended into the third quarter.
“We were stuck on 10 points forever,” Mullen said. “We just couldn’t score.”
UAlbany, though, never relinquished its lead after it moved ahead with 2:27 to go in the second quarter that saw UMass Lowell only score three points. For the game, UMass Lowell made 15 of 55 shots, missed all seven of its 3-point attempts and committed 17 turnovers.
UAlbany only made 17 of 51 shots, but received double-digit scoring from three players. Frames had 13 points to lead UAlbany, while Haegerstrand had a dozen and junior Ellen Hahne scored 10.
On a three-game winning streak, UAlbany is firmly in control of its own destiny toward securing a top-four seed for the America East playoffs. Among America East teams still competing this season, UAlbany is in fourth place in terms of winning percentage at .571 — well ahead of the trio of teams tied in fifth-place at .333. Each of those fifth-place teams — Binghamton, New Hampshire and NJIT — are 4-8 in league play.
Staying within the standings’ top four is critical since the league’s top-two teams will automatically advance to the semifinals, while the Nos. 3 and 4 teams will each host a mini-tournament to decide the other teams that will advance to semifinals.
Mullen, though, cautioned after Saturday’s game that she’d “be surprised if there were a lot of teams left to even play” in the conference’s playoffs with the way the league’s women’s basketball season is currently trending. Vermont announced last weekend it had ended its season because of concerns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, while this weekend only includes one other America East series — between Stony Brook and Hartford — being played besides UAlbany’s two-game series with UMass Lowell.
All that uncertainty, Mullen said, makes for a situation that makes it even more important for coaches and players to focus on taking things one day at a time.
“At this point, everything is just so up in the air and so unpredictable,” Mullen said. “It’s just hard to go past what’s right in front of you.”