UAlbany men’s basketball sharp in America East playoff opener

CJ Kelly takes a shot during Saturday's game. (Steve McLaughlin/America East)
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CJ Kelly takes a shot during Saturday's game. (Steve McLaughlin/America East)

Throughout the regular season, UAlbany men’s basketball head coach Will Brown promised his program’s roster had the “pieces” to contend in the America East Conference.

The team’s core players, though, struggled all season to get healthy at the same time . . . and, in this abbreviated, stop-and-go season played amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Great Danes’ regular season included approximately half of the games a team plays in a normal campaign. That made developing on-court chemistry even more difficult for a team that regularly plays five players that transferred into the program prior to this season.

But the America East playoffs started Saturday. That meant the time for patience was over, as the Great Danes faced their season’s first true must-win game. 

And the Great Danes sure looked ready for it.

“I don’t even think we were at our best today, honestly,” UAlbany graduate student Jarvis Doles said during a post-game teleconference. “I think we still have another level to go.”

At Chase Arena in West Hartford, Connecticut, UAlbany cruised past NJIT to a 76-66 victory. The Great Danes made 55.1% of their field-goal attempts, never trailed and led by as many as 20 points late in the second half of a game that NJIT head coach Brian Kennedy said ended with a score that “was probably not indicative of how well Albany played.”

Brown said he was “pretty sure” Saturday’s matchup was the first this season that UAlbany had all of its scholarship players available to use. 

“It took a little while to get to this point,” said Brown, whose team will play Sunday in the quarterfinals against host Hartford at 3 p.m.

UAlbany (No. 5 seed, 7-8 overall) scored the first seven points of Saturday’s game and built as large as a 17-point lead against NJIT (No. 8, 7-12) in the first half, which ended with the Great Danes ahead 39-23.

UAlbany made 15 of 27 shots in the opening half, then 12 of 22 in the second. The Great Danes’ lead reached a game-high 20 points after a 3-pointer from Doles with 5:45 to go, but NJIT was able to make the final score a respectable one after putting together a 20-7 run prior to UAlbany making some free throws to close the game out.

“It’s a good win,” Brown said.

Hartford (No. 4, 12-8) had no problem moving past Binghamton (No. 9, 4-14) in Saturday’s other first-round playoff game at Chase Arena. Hartford won 77-60, as Austin Williams led the way with 29 points and 15 rebounds.

UAlbany and Hartford didn’t play in the regular season. Brown said assistant coach Josh Pelletier handled the Great Danes’ scout for Hartford, and that the Great Danes will be prepared to take on a team that’s 8-1 this season on its home court.

“I have a feeling that Hartford’s going to try to limit the amount of possessions in the game, play really slow and try to not allow us to get in any type of a rhythm,” Brown said.

UAlbany certainly had a rhythm to it Saturday, even despite starters Antonio Rizzuto and Kellon Taylor playing limited minutes because of foul trouble. Rizzuto, a second-team all-conference selection, barely played; he was scoreless in a season-low 11 minutes.

“Antonio’s been so good for us,” Brown said of Rizzuto, who finished with four fouls, but had picked up his second midway through the first half and his third less than a minute after halftime. “He’s our best perimeter defender. The problem is, he’s so physical defensively — and, sometimes, a little too physical.”

Doles scored a team-high 21 points and junior CJ Kelly had 20. Those players combined to make 13 of 17 shots from the field, including 8 of 9 from 3-point territory. UAlbany also received 14 points from graduate student Chuck Champion. Meanwhile, both Doles and Kelly credited junior point guard Jamel Horton — who had 14 points, six rebounds and seven assists — with making sure the Great Danes stayed on track.

NJIT senior Zach Cooks had a game-high 26 points.

NJIT’s Kennedy had a quick assessment of “CJ Kelly” when asked why his team, which lost all three meetings this season with UAlbany, struggled so much against the Great Danes. But Kennedy also pointed out how Rizzuto hurt NJIT during the regular season . . . and that the size of the 6-foot-4 Horton created issues for NJIT . . . and that Doles was such a difficult matchup for his team.

“They’re just a really well-balanced team,” Kennedy said.

UAlbany looked the part of that Saturday night after a season of trying to work itself into top shape.

Now, with the postseason underway, the Great Danes look like a team capable of making a run in the America East tournament.

“If we can stay out of our own way and we take it one game at a time,” Brown said, “I think we have as good of an opportunity as anyone.”

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