ALBANY — So many times this season, UAlbany women’s basketball head coach Colleen Mullen has referenced the “story” her team is writing for itself amid all the challenges it has faced during this campaign played amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The next part of that story gets written Sunday with UAlbany’s trip to top-seeded Maine for a 1 p.m. America East Conference semifinal game, and Great Danes sophomore Helene Haegerstrand said her team is determined to make sure that chapter isn’t the final one.
“To make a long story short, it’s been a lot of ups and down, and adversity . . . and it’s just ended up with us coming out stronger from everything,” Haegerstrand said Wednesday. “Our team chemistry has been amazing here this whole time, and we’ve just been growing [despite] everything.”
“We’re waiting for our highlight still,” Haegerstrand said, “and I feel like that’s going to be the end of our story that we’ve been talking about this whole time. We’re not done yet, and we have things to prove to ourselves.”
Winning a league crown is the season-defining highlight the Great Danes are seeking, but knocking off Maine (No. 1 seed, 16-2 overall) in the semifinal would be nearly as sweet for a UAlbany (No. 4, 7-10) team that lost twice in the regular season to its semifinal opponent.
Those games were frustrating ones for the Great Danes, as they were played shortly after UAlbany had ended a pandemic-related pause of in-person team activities. To make things worse for the Great Danes, the team’s schedule was switched in the week leading up to those games, only allowing the team a few days to prepare for the conference’s No. 1 team.
Even if the scheduling flip hadn’t occurred, UAlbany junior Ellen Hahne said the Great Danes wouldn’t have been able to focus much on preparing for Maine. In leading up to those games, Hahne said the team’s focus was on conditioning more than anything else.
“It was a quick turnaround and we did the best we could,” Hahne said.
“We’re stronger,” Hahne said. “We’re better, and we’re just really excited about getting more of a fair game.”
Maine, though, is difficult to play, regardless of any circumstances around the contest. The guard-heavy group had three players named first-team all-conference this season, including fifth-year senior Blanca Millan who was named the America East Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
“She’s very difficult to guard because she can do so many things well,” Mullen said of Millan.
And because of Maine’s lineup of stars, opposing defenses cannot focus exclusively on Millan.
“With [Maine’s] ability to shoot the 3, and how we have to protect the 3-point line, you really can’t gamble too much,” Mullen said. “You have to dig in and play very fundamental, tough defense, where you contain penetration and you contest the 3-point line.”
Maine won 13 of 15 league games this season. While the team produced a great season, several America East opponents did find ways to stay competitive with the club, and Mullen said her coaching staff spent extra time this week breaking down how other league programs had success against Maine.
“And I’m going to steal [what Maine’s opponents did] right away from them, and I’m going to try to use whatever I can to prepare my team to try to make Maine feel as uncomfortable as possible,” Mullen said.
Maine had a bye to the semifinals, while UAlbany defeated New Hampshire in last weekend’s quarterfinals. UAlbany had a late-season pause, but has played three games since that point and has had more than two full weeks of practice heading into its third game with Maine.
“We know we can beat any team in the league right now,” Haegerstrand said.
Maine won by 18 points against UAlbany in the teams’ first meeting, then by 16 the next day. The second of those games, though, was competitive through early in the fourth quarter. UAlbany trailed 48-44 with seven minutes to go before Maine used a 10-0 run to seize complete control of the contest.
Mullen said the Great Danes “love” the role of underdog they are playing heading into their semifinal game, which offers them a chance to “slay the beast up at Maine” with a reward of playing for a league championship coming to them if they’re able to pull off this win.
“They’re not afraid of any opponent,” Mullen said of her group, “and I think that they’re very, very excited at the opportunity that they get to play at Maine.”