ALBANY — The urgency to win isn’t necessarily any different from in a normal season, but the threat of a season-ending loss isn’t felt quite the same as this year’s America East Conference women’s basketball playoffs start.
The stop-and-go nature of the 2020-21 college basketball season, with the chance a team could need to pause its season on any day, gave every day a playoff-like feel for UAlbany head coach Colleen Mullen’s team.
“You almost felt like it was kind of do or die during the conference season,” Mullen said during a Wednesday teleconference.
Mullen’s Great Danes had their offseason work severely limited because of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, then the team experienced multiple pauses of in-person team activities during the season because of positive COVID-19 test results among the program’s Tier 1 personnel. The team’s most-recent pause concluded in mid-February; after it, the Great Danes played two games at Stony Brook prior to Sunday’s 5 p.m. first-round playoff game against New Hampshire at SEFCU Arena.
While the Great Danes lost both games to Stony Brook, UAlbany (No. 4 seed, 6-10 overall) knows those contests against the conference’s regular-season runner-up were valuable ahead of taking on a New Hampshire (No. 5, 5-14) club that has lost six of its last seven games.
“Nothing is like an actual game,” UAlbany sophomore Grace Heeps said of the advantage gained from playing games last Monday and Tuesday rather than practicing on those days.
UAlbany won both its games this season against New Hampshire with a double-digit advantage. Meanwhile, New Hampshire heads into this weekend’s matchup off three consecutive games in which it lost by at least 29 points each time.
Still, Mullen — a New Hampshire graduate — said the way that New Hampshire “changes their defenses consistently throughout the game” will pose a challenge for the Great Danes, who averaged a conference-low 50.1 points per game this season. New Hampshire, though, allowed a conference-high 65.8 points per game this season, so the Great Danes should have plenty of opportunities for success if they remain composed in attacking New Hampshire’s varying defenses.
“We,” UAlbany junior Lucia Decortes, “have to play harder than them.”
Only six of the America East’s 10 programs are participating in the playoffs of this “crazy COVID year,” as Mullen described it. Binghamton, Hartford, UMBC and Vermont are not taking part in this year’s postseason.
Mullen’s program opted to continue playing this season, one that still involves “learning and teaching” at this late stage because practice time has been so limited. While her team has plenty of “built-in excuses” to explain away its regular season’s losing record, Mullen said her club is focused on using the playoffs to write a “story” with an appealing ending.
“We could pull out any excuse from our back pocket and say, ‘You know, here’s the reason why we can’t do X, Y and Z,’” Mullen said. “But why not prove ourselves right? We know that we’re capable of doing it. Why not prove everybody else wrong, and do things in spite of it, and write a storybook for ourselves?”