That the America East Conference playoffs start in less than a month is “pretty weird,” as UAlbany women’s basketball freshman Kayla Cooper sees it.
“We really just feel like we’ve only had a couple games,” Cooper said earlier this week.
UAlbany has actually played a dozen games, but Cooper’s use of hyperbole makes sense. A college basketball team that’s played 12 games should be entering conference play, not nearing the end of it.
That’s the deal, though, during this season played amid a coronavirus pandemic that causes pauses and disruptions seemingly at every turn. But as long as UAlbany plays its upcoming scheduled games at Binghamton — at 2 p.m. Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday — the Great Danes will have completed four consecutive weekends of games, a stretch of uninterrupted play and practice that has helped the team start to jell.
“I feel like we’re starting to play well together, starting to get to know each other, which shots we should look for, and who everybody is,” UAlbany junior Ellen Hahne said.
While head coach Colleen Mullen described Binghamton as a “young team,” she also noted that label can apply to her team even as it starts a senior, two juniors and two sophomores. Among that starting five, Hahne and sophomore Grace Heeps are in their first seasons with the UAlbany program, while junior Lucia Decortes played sparingly in her previous seasons with the Great Danes. Then, off the bench, the team’s next five players in terms of total minutes played this season include four in their first season at UAlbany.
Cooper said the Great Danes are “a lot more confident” as they head into this weekend’s games then they were several weeks ago when they resumed their season with back-to-back losses against Maine after more than three weeks without a game. UAlbany has won three of its last four games as its players’ comfort and familiarity with each other on the court has grown.
“We’ve really just come together and realized if we all play to the best of our abilities, we’re really a force to be reckoned with,” said Cooper, who is the reigning America East Conference Rookie of the Week.
UAlbany (4-4 America East, 5-7 overall) is in fourth place in the conference heading into this weekend, while Binghamton (4-8, 4-10) is one of three teams tied for fifth place. Two America East teams — Vermont and UMBC — have ended their seasons early because of concerns related to the pandemic, leaving the league with eight remaining teams.
With the postseason only weeks away from starting, that gives this weekend some extra importance for the Great Danes. With a couple wins, they stay in charge of their fate in terms of securing one of the postseason’s top-four seeds. With a split — or worse — Mullen’s team could find itself needing to battle with Binghamton and the teams the Bearcats are currently tied with in the standings.
And Mullen said she knows Binghamton — “a young team, but also a very aggressive team” — presents an interesting challenge for her group. While the Bearcats are four games below .500 in league play, Binghamton has what Mullen called a “funny record” since the program has split four of its six conference series. The league’s top-two teams, Maine and Stony Brook, swept Binghamton, but the Bearcats split against UMBC, Hartford, New Hampshire and UMass Lowell. In a weird twist, Binghamton lost the first game and won the second in each of the series it split.
More than anything, though, Mullen wants to see her team continue to take steps this weekend toward its goal of developing into a winning one.
“We’re still learning,” Mullen said. “We’re still growing.”