SCHENECTADY — When the chance presented itself to go play Division I UAlbany, first-year Union women’s basketball head coach Katie Marcella left it up to her players last week to decide if they wanted to take on the challenge.
“All of us needed to be on the same page,” Marcella said Monday morning at Viniar Athletic Center. “If there was one person that wasn’t into it, then we weren’t doing it.”
Marcella had the team’s players talk amongst themselves — and that was a relatively quick conversation.
“Everyone was so excited,” Union senior Amber Raisner said. “This is a great opportunity for our team. It’s going to be a completely different type of play.”
“It’ll be fun for them to see what it looks like at that level,” Marcella said.
Union and UAlbany play at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Great Danes’ SEFCU Arena, as the Union program will play what’s believed to be its first game against a Division I foe. The contest will count as an exhibition game for Union and a real game for UAlbany, and is the first meeting between the programs since UAlbany beat Union 72-62 on Jan. 26, 1995. UAlbany, which has won 17 of the first 23 games between the two programs, became a Division I competitor in 1999.
Union’s last win against UAlbany was a 56-55 victory on Nov. 27, 1990 — and Marcella and her players are realistic about their chances Tuesday night to record Union’s first win in 31 years against the Great Danes.
“Every single [defensive] stop for us is a win because they’re going to have bigger, faster, stronger players,” Marcella said. “But if we can get stops against athletes like that, we should be able to get stops against our peers at the Division III level.”
“We want to be competitive, obviously, but this is more of a ‘let’s get better for us’ game because the rest of the teams we’re going to play won’t be as challenging as them,” said Raisner, a neuroscience major who is Union’s leading scorer on the season at 12.5 points per game.
Head coach Colleen Mullen’s UAlbany program is 6-4 on the season and has won five of its last six games, while Union has played at a higher level since suffering two double-digit losses to start its season. Union is 1-5 overall, but the Dutchwomen’s victory was a 22-point win and each of their last three losses finished as a two-possession game. Since its 14-point and 10-point setbacks to start the season, Union has outscored its opponents by seven points despite only winning one of those four games.
“I think our record doesn’t show where we are as a team and what we can do during the rest of this season,” said Raisner, whose club’s game against UAlbany starts a six-day stretch with four games. “We’re growing. We’re doing a lot better. We’re playing more as a team, trusting the system more and going in a positive direction.”
Mullen said she’s seen signs of that in preparing her team to play Union. UAlbany had an opening on its schedule after SUNY Canton couldn’t play earlier this month due to health-and-safety protocols, and a game with Union is filling in for that contest — and Mullen expects the Dutchwomen to challenge her club, which starts America East Conference play Thursday. Mullen said her team’s preparation to play Union had been handled “completely identical to any other opponent” the Great Danes will face this season, and called getting the chance to play against another Capital Region program a “best-case scenario” following the SUNY Canton cancellation.
Marcella — a Guilderland High School graduate — previously coached at Hartwick, and said there had been discussions a couple years ago for that team to play UAlbany. Monday, during a teleconference with media members, Mullen said she was excited for the coaches’ programs to meet this year.
“She’s somebody that we all know in the area,” Mullen said of Marcella. “She’s a good coach and she’s going to run a great program.”
While UAlbany played as recently as last Tuesday, Union last played Dec. 10 against Trinity, a game the Dutchwomen lost 49-44. The team’s players were home for a winter break following that game, and returned to campus for practice Sunday evening. Following that workout, the club practiced twice Monday and Marcella said her team will conduct a near-complete practice Tuesday, rather than the typical game-day shootaround, as it continues to work back from its time off.
“As much as we’re preparing and want to compete [against UAlbany], we need to get ourselves better and prepared for our Division III opponents,” Marcella said.
Mullen said Monday that her club is “definitely going to be [without] a couple players” against Union due to health-and-safety protocols related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Mullen did not identify the players that will miss the game and said it’s possible the club could be without several players depending on forthcoming test results, but said the Great Danes fully expect to play Tuesday’s game.
“Looking across the country, it’s been scary with all the games canceled and knowing that COVID is out there and it’s more of the same from last year,” Mullen said. “Hopefully, [this season] it’ll not be as severe.”
Mullen said all of her players are vaccinated and that the Great Danes are following CDC guidance in determining how to handle positive test results within the program. At the moment, Mullen said the Great Danes’ return-to-play process takes “about 15 days to complete” for “anybody that tests positive.”
NEELY EARNS HONOR
UAlbany men’s basketball freshman Justin Neely collected Monday another America East Conference rookie of the week award.
Neely has now been honored four times by the conference. Last week, Neely had 11 points and 14 rebounds in UAlbany’s win against Lehigh.
Neely is averaging 6.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game off the bench this season.
The Great Danes play Wednesday against Bucknell to wrap up their non-conference season.