The UAlbany men’s basketball team had lost the first five games of its 2021-22 season.
Justin Neely had missed the first five 3-point attempts of his college career.
In memorable fashion, both of those streaks didn’t reach six.
Down a point in the final seconds of Wednesday’s game against Eastern Illinois, Neely hit a game-winning 3 as the Great Danes claimed the first win of Dwayne Killings’ head-coaching career with a 64-62 victory at McBrayer Arena in Richmond, Kentucky. Neely wasn’t the first option on the game-deciding play, but the freshman lined up the pivotal shot with confidence off a pass from graduate student De’Vondre Perry.
“It was a big play from ’Dre,” Neely said during the post-game teleconference. “It shows the trust that we have; [Perry], as an older guy, giving it to the freshman, and putting the game in my hands, essentially. That’s a major play and I appreciate that from him.”
Killings said the need for the Great Danes to be “selfless” had been a major part of his message in recent days. The first-year head coach said the way the team’s final offensive possession, which put the ball into Perry’s hands and allowed the transfer from Temple to decide what to do with it, played out showed that the Great Danes had listened.
“That’s got to be part of our identity, our culture,” Killings said of Perry’s unselfish play, “and I thought that last play was everything we want.”
Wednesday’s matchup was a neutral-court game that was part of the Eastern Kentucky Invitational, and the contest wrapped up a three-games-in-five days stretch for UAlbany. For stretches of the second half, it appeared likely the Great Danes would head into the Thanksgiving holiday with a 0-6 record, but UAlbany put together a fantastic finish to earn its first win.
“We’ve still got room to improve,” UAlbany’s Matt Cerruti said, “but we’ll take the win.”
UAlbany (1-5) trailed Eastern Illinois (1-5) 52-44 with less than seven minutes to play. A pair of free throws from Neely started up a 15-5 run that included seven points from Cerruti and five from Jamel Horton to give the Great Danes a 59-57 lead.
Eastern Illinois tied it at 59 as the game headed into the final minute, and Horton continued his strong finish to the game with a bucket to put the Great Danes up two with a half-minute to go. Horton had nine points, six rebounds and six assists in the game, with seven of his points coming in the final four minutes of regulation.
Eastern Illinois, though, had one big shot left in it. After Horton put UAlbany ahead 61-59, CJ Lane made a 3-pointer for Eastern Illinois and UAlbany called a timeout with 8.3 seconds to go.
In that huddle, the Great Danes were provided their play and a message from their coach.
“Believe in yourself,” Killings said he told Cerruti, Trey Hutcheson, Horton, Neely and Perry before they headed back onto the court.
Perry delivered the inbounds pass to Neely, who then handed off the ball to Perry as the freshman screened the defender chasing the graduate student. Shooting threats Cerruti and Hutcheson each moved to a corner, and Horton headed for an opening on the perimeter as Perry started to dribble toward the basket.
Eastern Illinois, though, met Perry with a trio of defenders, leading him to circle back. Neely’s job was to read and react to the defense, and he made the right call; Neely swooped behind Perry, took the short pass and didn’t hesitate with what to do next.
“We put the ball into ’Dre’s hands and just said, ‘You’ve got to make the right play,’ and he was poised enough to get the ball to Justin,” Killings said, “and Justin hit just a big-time shot.”
Neely — the reigning America East Conference rookie of the week — was 0 of 5 from 3-point territory before Wednesday’s game-sealing 3. He took the shot, though, without fear of missing.
“I know my team’s got my back, make or miss,” Neely said.
Neely’s shot went through the net with 1.4 seconds to go, and Eastern Illinois’ ensuing desperation 3 was off the mark — and UAlbany got to celebrate its first win of the Killings era.
“It’s a huge step for us,” Cerruti said. “We just want to get the ball rolling, so hopefully this starts to get us going here.”
Eastern Illinois’ starting lineup featured a familiar face for Capital Region college basketball fans. Sammy Friday IV — who played four seasons at Siena — was averaging a team-high 11.5 points per game for Eastern Illinois, where Friday transferred to after the 2019-20 season, heading into Wednesday’s game. A sixth-year player, Friday received a medical redshirt for his junior season at Siena and is now using his extra season of playing eligibility that the NCAA granted all winter athletes that competed last season due to pandemic-related issues.
Friday had eight points against UAlbany, while Kashawn Charles led the team with 14. For the Great Danes, Cerruti had 14 points, Hutcheson added a dozen and Perry contributed 10.
Off the bench, Neely produced eight points and four rebounds in 22 minutes.
UAlbany doesn’t play again until next Wednesday at Kansas State of the Big 12 Conference. Killings said UAlbany will take Thanksgiving and Friday off from practice to allow players to enjoy some “much-needed time off,” and spend the holiday with their families.
That break arrives off a win the Great Danes will surely remember for quite some time, and one they hope to build off when they return to Albany.
“To win your first game for a college basketball program in that fashion is pretty cool and it’s great for the guys for them to have that kind of joy in the locker room before they go home is awesome,” Killings said.