ALBANY — It wasn’t a “very pretty game.”
With a chuckle, Harvard men’s basketball head coach Tommy Amaker said that was “putting it mildly.”
But it was a game that showed the grit the Great Danes want to bring to the court every night, and it left Amaker “impressed” with the UAlbany team that his Crimson defeated 60-53 Wednesday at SEFCU Arena.
“What we saw was a team that was fighting and competing very hard,” Amaker, a star player for Duke in the 1980s, said of the Great Danes.
The goal, of course, is to win games rather than earn praise from a victorious opposing coach. But UAlbany, through its 0-3 start, has shown progress in each of its games, and Wednesday’s effort was no different. The team’s offense struggled for nearly all of the contest, but the Great Danes used hustle and a tenacious defensive effort to stay within striking range of one of the Ivy League’s top teams.
“We’re getting better,” said Dwayne Killings, UAlbany’s first-year head coach. “I see it. I think everybody sees it.”
UAlbany missed 22 of its first 27 shots against Harvard (2-1), but somehow found itself down only four points at halftime. In UAlbany’s season-opening game vs. Towson, as the Great Danes’ offense sputtered, so did the team’s defensive focus — and that didn’t happen against Harvard.
“It definitely showed growth because the first game, we didn’t see the ball go in a lot, and it started to affect us defensively,” UAlbany’s De’Vondre Perry said. “But we stayed with it today.”
Following Wednesday’s halftime, UAlbany never took the lead, but the Great Danes tied up the score on three separate occassions in the second half and were within two possessions of Harvard for nearly all of the final 10:45; the Crimson made some free throws in the last 30 seconds to push the lead to a three-possession advantage.
“Hard team to beat,” Killings said of Harvard. “You’ve got to find a way to put them away — and we were right there.”
UAlbany had its chances. It missed too many free throws late in the game, though, and Harvard turned a key second-chance opportunity into a made 3 that stretched its lead to six points with less than six minutes to go. Later, the Great Danes appeared on the verge of gaining possession, down three points, with 48.1 seconds to go, but a charge-block call went in Harvard’s favor when it was ruled that UAlbany’s Matt Cerruti — who had just scored to bring the Great Danes to within three points of the Crimson — hadn’t fully cleared the restricted area under the basket.
Instead of the Great Danes taking control of the ball down 51-48, Harvard’s Noah Kirkwood made a pair of free throws and UAlbany never got the chance to take possession with the chance to tie or take the lead in the final minute.
“It’s a big play, but Coach preaches never too high, never too low,” Cerruti said. “So once they [the officials] made their call, we just move onto the next play. There’s nothing we could do.”
“That’s the game of basketball,” Killings said. “We can’t put that on [the officials]. End of the day, you’ve got to win the game.”
For Harvard, Kirkwood had a game-high 16 points and Luka Sakota scored 13. UAlbany’s Perry had 14 points and 11 rebounds, while Cerruti had a dozen points and Jamel Horton — despite only playing 23 minutes and missing the majority of the second half because of a cramping issue in his right leg — had 10 points.
Both teams made less than 40% of their shots, and UAlbany only made 3 of 15 from 3-point territory.
“As a team, we played hard,” Perry said.
“Couldn’t put the rock in the ocean,” Perry said.
The Great Danes, though, out-rebounded Harvard 38-34 to help their cause.
“To win games, we’re going to have to muck the game up, sometimes,” Killings said. “It’s going to be about rebounding, defending, hustle plays.”
UAlbany next plays Saturday at Eastern Kentucky to start a three-game road trip that will see the Great Danes also play at Kentucky and a neutral-site game at Eastern Kentucky against Eastern Illinois. There has been progress through the team’s opening games, and the Great Danes expect that to continue — and to eventually earn them a win.
“We’re going to get better,” Perry said.