ALBANY — A matchup with the league’s top team awaits the UAlbany women’s basketball program.
That means the Great Danes’ season is still going, and head coach Colleen Mullen said that the reward earned with Sunday’s 49-43 win at SEFCU Arena against New Hampshire in the America East Conference quarterfinals is one with special meaning during this season played amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I can’t say enough about how excited I am that our team gets to continue on and play Maine next Sunday,” Mullen said during a post-game teleconference. “This is such a fun time of year. To be able to be here right now, to do this in the circumstances of the pandemic and COVID and all the adversity this team has faced, I feel so lucky — because a lot of it is luck — and just so grateful that our players continue to keep their season alive.”
UAlbany kept its season going with a tremendous defensive effort in the first half and some big shots in the game’s final minutes from junior Ellen Hahne and sophomore Helene Haegerstrand. That season has included multiple pauses and near-constant uncertainty over when the next one might occur, but the Great Danes were thrilled to extend their campaign for at least one more week.
“We’ve been talking about that a lot this week, just what we’ve been through this whole year,” Hahne said. “All the ups and downs — and that we’re here, and we’re playing this game, and [that] we’re able to come out with a win, it’s huge and we’re just so excited about it.”
“We just grinded it out,” Mullen said, “and found a way to win.”
UAlbany (No. 4 seed, 7-10 overall) looked like it might coast past a New Hampshire (No. 5, 5-15) team it defeated twice in the regular season by a double-digit margin. The Great Danes led 25-12 at halftime, but New Hampshire — which had lost six of seven games to close its regular season, including each of the final three by at least 29 points — refused to quit.
First-year head coach Kelsey Hogan said it’s been a point of emphasis with her “young bunch” that included only one senior to make “sure that we fight and that we compete” all season.
“Our mentality has been making sure that we get better every single day with every single opportunity that we have,” said Hogan, whose program includes freshman Bella Stuart, a Shenendehowa High School graduate.
So New Hampshire battled back. New Hampshire outscored UAlbany 17-8 in the third quarter, then worked itself within a point of UAlbany with more than three minutes to play in the fourth.
The teams traded turnovers, then traded 2-point baskets.
Then, Hahne made her 3-pointer with less than two minutes to go.
“That 3, it almost let everybody take a deep breath,” Mullen said. “You could see how tense everybody had been.”
New Hampshire’s Amanda Torres — the team’s senior — answered with a bucket, but Haegerstrand then followed with a 3. From there, UAlbany maintained a two-possession advantage.
With a team-best 12 points, Haegerstrand was one of four Great Danes to register double-digit scoring. Hahne had 11 points and nine rebounds, while junior Lucia Decortes had 11 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and three steals.
Meanwhile, senior Kyara Frames — perhaps playing in her final game at SEFCU Arena — played the full 40 minutes, and offered 11 points and six rebounds.
“She had a terrific game,” Mullen said. “She had a senior game.”
The roster for top-seeded Maine, which had a bye to next weekend’s semifinals, includes three first-team all-conference players, while one of them — Blanca Millan — was named both the America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Maine beat UAlbany twice during the regular season, but both those games were played shortly after the Great Danes had ended one of their pandemic-related pauses. Even at this late point in the season, UAlbany remains a work in progress because of all the games and practices it had to cancel — and Mullen said that makes her Great Danes a dangerous squad for the league’s top team to face.
“I’m pretty sure Maine doesn’t want to see us. I think that people look at us and say, ‘What team are we going to get?’ because we’ve had the pauses,” Mullen said. “The last time we faced Maine, we were [coming] off of, essentially, a 20-day pause. I mean, we had practiced six [times] in 27 days. It was not a level playing field at all — but we did, at times, especially in the second game, [compete with Maine]. . . . We know we can compete with them, but we have to defend.”