ALBANY — To say the least, it was an unusual night of college basketball in the Capital Region.
On the court Tuesday evening at SEFCU Arena, the Division III Union women’s basketball program played its first-ever game against a Division I foe.
And that, in the grand scheme of things, was one of the more normal things that happened.
That Division I team, UAlbany, won 88-37 in the first meeting between the Capital Region programs since 1995 — but it played with only eight available players after multiple Great Danes landed in health-and-safety protocols related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. That development came after Tuesday’s game was just scheduled last week following the Great Danes’ Dec. 18 game being called off for health-and-safety reasons related to the SUNY Canton program, the original Division III foe for UAlbany this season.
Meanwhile, before the game and away from the court, the UAlbany athletic department announced that its men’s basketball team’s game against Bucknell, which was scheduled for Wednesday, had been called off due to health-and-safety protocols involving that group of Great Danes. That came a day after the Siena men’s basketball team had an unexpected day off when its opponent — American — couldn’t play for pandemic-related reasons, as well as a day after the Union men’s basketball team found out its game Thursday had been canceled because its opponent — Brandeis — had halted in-person activities.
Then, shortly after Tuesday night’s women’s basketball game had started at SEFCU Arena, it was announced that the Skidmore women’s basketball program won’t play in this weekend’s Springfield College Tournament in which Union is also scheduled to compete, for unspecified reasons. (Previously, Skidmore had canceled its men’s basketball game this week that was scheduled at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps College in California.)
Nationally, the college basketball season has seen a wave of games canceled in the last couple weeks, so what’s happening with teams around the Capital Region isn’t unique — and how the situation has started to echo that of last season, when so many games were canceled and teams dealt with a number of “pauses,” hasn’t been lost on anyone involved locally in the sport.
“I think last year really taught me a lot about taking a step back, and just having a little bit of perspective [regarding] handling things that are out of your control — and, unfortunately, we’re kind of back to that point, a little bit, where people are canceling games, postponing games,” UAlbany head coach Colleen Mullen said after her team improved its non-conference record to 7-4. “COVID, it’s spreading, it’s contagious, people are getting it and it’s shutting teams down, so that just creates anxiety for players, it creates anxiety for coaches.”
Mullen had said Monday that she knew her club would be without multiple players for its game against Union. Five Great Danes didn’t suit up or sit on the bench for the contest — including regular starter Grace Heeps — but UAlbany still had its top-six scorers on the season for the game. Mullen said UAlbany’s active roster will be “not necessarily the same, but very similar” when the Great Danes play Thursday at Hartford to start America East play, but said her club didn’t give serious consideration to calling off its game against Union with an eye toward resting up a bit prior to conference action.
“I think we were just trying to figure out if we had enough players to play,” UAlbany’s Kayla Cooper said. “I don’t think we ever were planning to not play. We always want to play every time we can.”
Another reason to play the game with a depleted roster?
“The way we looked at it,” Mullen said, “is that it’s very hard to practice with eight players.”
So it was easier for UAlbany to play Tuesday than practice, and — of course — the Great Danes had more than enough firepower to breeze past a Division III team that brought a 1-5 record into the contest and hadn’t played since Dec. 10. Union’s roster doesn’t include a player taller than 6-foot-0, while UAlbany’s has only three standing shorter than 5-foot-11, and Union head coach Katie Marcella said her club embraced the opportunity to play against a Division I foe.
“We went into it knowing they’re bigger, faster, stronger than us,” Marcella said, “and that was the challenge, right?”
UAlbany led 48-19 after a first half that saw Union take a 3-2 lead before the Great Danes took over. UAlbany had separate runs of 11-0 and 17-0 in the opening 20 minutes, which saw the Great Danes make 7 of 10 3-pointers. Three UAlbany players — Cooper, Morgan Haney and Lilly Phillips — scored 10 points in the first half, while Union’s Amber Raisner had a dozen.
Cooper finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds, while Lucia Decortes contributed 14 points and 10 rebounds for a UAlbany club that had five players record double-digit scoring. Raisner had a team-high 16 points for Union, while Olivia Pachla added 10.
Mullen credited Union for the “energized” approach it brought to the game, while Haney also noted the “good spark” the Dutchwomen brought to the court at SEFCU Arena. Leading into the game, Marcella said she focused her team around earning small victories such as the two shot-clock violations they forced UAlbany into committing. Still, Union’s first-year head coach said the Dutchwomen “needed to focus on us,” and use the game to prepare for what’s ahead in the Liberty League.
“Part of it [playing against a Division I team] is knowing what you’re up against — but also not really acknowledging it,” Marcella said. “It’s still basketball players. You still have to execute the game. Doesn’t matter how big or how small you are; if you don’t execute your stuff, you’re not going to come out and win.”
UAlbany’s next challenge is — hopefully — to play two conference games in a four-day stretch, which starts with a trip Thursday to play Hartford.
For Union? Also starting Thursday, Marcella’s Schenectady-based club is scheduled to play three games in a four-game stretch, but she noted that the Dutchwomen will need to see how their latest batch of coronavirus test results look before they can confirm they’ll be able to play — and then they need to hope their upcoming opponents are able and willing to play, too.
“You know, I don’t know,” Marcella said of what’s immediately ahead for her team. “Looking around at what’s happening and seeing all the canceled games, it doesn’t seem promising.”
Tuesday’s contest counted as an exhibition game for Union and a real game for UAlbany, and was 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.