It was a season-ending loss.
There’s no question about that.
The question that needs to be answered: Was Sunday’s 83-77 defeat against Hartford in the America East Conference quarterfinals an era-ending defeat for the UAlbany men’s basketball program?
Head coach Will Brown has led the UAlbany program since December 2001, but is in the final year of his contract — and that season concluded with Sunday’s loss at Chase Arena in West Hartford, Connecticut. Brown and UAlbany athletic director Mark Benson each declined comment last week on the coach’s future status at the university, beyond that Benson acknowledged it will be one of the topics of discussion when the two men meet to discuss the state of the program once the season is over.
Now, the season is over.
Benson didn’t respond Sunday night to fresh requests for comment from The Daily Gazette regarding Brown’s status, while Brown only offered that he’s unsure what’s next for himself after the Great Danes’ fourth consecutive exit in the quarterfinal round of the America East playoffs.
“Yeah, I have no idea, to be honest with you,” Brown said during the post-game teleconference in response to a question regarding when he expects to discuss his status at UAlbany with Benson. “You know, I would imagine sometime soon, but I have no idea at this point in time.”
Brown has led UAlbany to five America East championship and NCAA tournament bids during his tenure. This year, it’s Hartford, UMass Lowell, UMBC and Vermont that remain capable of earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament during this season played amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“Just proud of our guys,” Brown said. “This is the year like no other. The adversity, the challenges. This group really handled everything well, so I’m really proud of them.”
UAlbany, though, couldn’t do enough Sunday to keep its season going. Despite shooting 55.6% from the field in a game largely played within a few-possession margin, UAlbany only led once — at 3-2 — during a game that saw Hartford always have an answer when the Great Danes threatened to take control.
“Just a heavyweight battle,” said Hartford head coach John Gallagher, whose team made 52.9% of its shots and battled through significant foul trouble for much of the game.
Hartford led 38-34 at halftime, and quickly increased its lead to nine points after intermission. UAlbany battled back to tie the game at 57 on a free throw from graduate student Jarvis Doles, and the teams never were separated by more than six points the rest of the way.
But UAlbany could never move ahead. After Doles tied the game at 57 with 11:21 to go, the teams played within a single-possession margin of each other for 59.7% of the remaining time, but Hartford never trailed as it made one needed play after another down the stretch.
“They were hitting some big shots late in the game and it was hard to adjust,” said UAlbany junior Antonio Rizzuto, who had a dozen points.
Brown said he viewed his team being down four points at halftime as the Great Danes having “survived” the opening 20 minutes, which saw UAlbany miss a bunch of early free throws and commit some careless turnovers.
The Great Danes were better in the second half, but not by enough.
“We just couldn’t get over the hump in the second half. Every time we got close, we had another, in my opinion, self-inflicted mistake,” Brown said. “We had too many breakdowns that you can’t have in a conference tournament scenario, whether it’s not rebounding a ball [or] whether it’s letting a guy who is a 3-point shooter shoot an uncontested 3. The turnovers at bad times. Self-inflicted mistakes, I think, really hurt us today, but our guys battled. They never quit. Proud of them.”
Junior CJ Kelly scored 18 points and Doles had 16 for a UAlbany team that had all five starters register double-digit scoring. Junior point guard Jamel Horton had a dozen points, plus had a team-high eight rebounds and a team-high seven assists.
For Hartford, graduate student Traci Carter led the way with 20 points. Carter scored four of his points in the final minute, including a critical jump shot with 58 seconds to go that put Hartford ahead 78-73. In the final minute, UAlbany never had possession and a chance to tie or take the lead, and its comeback attempt effectively ended when Doles committed a turnover with 11.1 seconds to go and Hartford up 80-75.
The Hawks made 3 of 4 free throws from there to seal their win.
Hartford (No. 4 seed, 13-8 overall) had advanced to Sunday’s quarterfinal with a win Saturday against ninth-seeded Binghamton, while UAlbany (No. 5, 7-9) breezed past eighth-seeded NJIT.
While Hartford will play next weekend at Vermont (No. 2, 10-4), UMass Lowell (No. 6, 10-11) will play at UMBC (No. 1, 14-5) in the America East’s other semifinal. UMass Lowell topped ninth-seeded Stony Brook and third-seeded New Hampshire during the conference’s opening weekend of postseason play, while UMBC and Vermont had byes to the semifinals.
And UAlbany will head to its offseason, which promises to be an interesting one — and a crucial one for the future of the program that last had a winning season in the 2017-18 campaign.
While the Great Danes finished below .500 this season, they are a veteran-laden team that will massively benefit if its core players all return, and that is possible given the NCAA’s ruling that all players that competed this winter were granted an extra year of eligibility because of uncertainty related to playing the season amid the pandemic. This season’s team, with all of its injuries and pandemic-related pauses, never quite got the chance to realize the potential it appeared to have given the talent on its roster.
“There’s a lot of good pieces in our program right now,” Brown said.
The first question, though, that the Great Danes need to answer this offseason is a simple one.
Will the coach that’s led them for two decades be back?