Given the circumstances leading up to Saturday’s game, UAlbany women basketball head coach Colleen Mullen had said it was unlikely her Great Danes were capable of producing “a large offensive output.”
She was right — and UAlbany certainly played for long stretches like a team that had experienced some major turbulence in the last couple weeks.
The Great Danes won, anyway.
“I am so proud of this team,” Mullen said after her team’s 50-39 win against New Hampshire at SEFCU Arena. “I’m so proud of this win. I think that it was a full team effort with a tremendous amount of guts that we showed as a team — an amazing amount of grittiness.”
UAlbany had to postpone its previous three games due to health-and-safety protocols related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and Mullen’s club had a varying number of players at practice each day in the week leading up to — what became — the team’s America East Conference opener. The Great Danes ended up missing only one player — starter Ellen Hahne — for the game against New Hampshire, but UAlbany’s available players were largely still several days away from being fully back in the swing of playing; Mullen said “half of them didn’t even remember our plays,” and Saturday’s pregame shootaround became more about re-learning basic sets than anything else.
In the first quarter, it certainly showed. UAlbany made 1 of 9 shots — including 0 of 6 from 3-point territory — and committed seven turnovers as it scored three points in the opening period.
“We didn’t execute in the first quarter — any of our plays,” UAlbany guard Grace Heeps said.
But New Hampshire only scored six points in that first quarter, as the Great Danes defense did its part — and, then, UAlbany outscored New Hampshire 21-9 in the second quarter to take control.
In the second half, UAlbany (1-0 America East, 8-4 overall) never trailed New Hampshire (0-2, 3-10), and the Great Danes maintained at least a two-possession lead throughout the fourth quarter following a 3 from Heeps 20 seconds into the stanza.
“We just had to be the tougher team,” Heeps said after a win that saw the Great Danes commit a season-worst 26 turnovers, but also help force New Hampshire into 24 of its own.
Kayla Cooper had 13 points and eight rebounds, and Helene Haegerstrand scored 11 points, but it was the UAlbany defense that led the way in the win — and Lucia Decortes was the Great Danes’ top star on that end of the court. UAlbany’s 6-foot-3 center from Italy recorded career-high totals in steals (seven) and blocks (six) in 32 minutes, plus added five rebounds.
“She saved us so many times,” Mullen said.
The coach added: “And, she just — she doesn’t care that she only scored one point, you know what I mean? That doesn’t mean anything to her. All she cares about is that she’s helping the team win.”
“I just love defense,” Decortes said. “That’s my favorite part of the whole game because you don’t really have to be talented; as long as you play hard . . . you can always [play] good defense.”
Former Shenendehowa High School standout Bella Stuart led New Hampshire — Mullen’s alma mater — with 14 points, while Talia Davis added 10.
For UAlbany, Heeps contributed nine points, Freja Werth had eight and Lilly Phillips scored six in the Great Danes’ fifth-consecutive victory.
“I think that was our biggest win because we stayed together when times got tough,” Heeps said. “If we can stay together when times get tough, we can stay together through anything.”
UAlbany next plays Wednesday at UMass Lowell, the first of three consecutive road games. It’s a crucial stretch early in the America East season for the Great Danes who are 7-0 at home and 1-4 on the road — and they head into that streak of games off the type of gutsy win that a program can build off.
“It really truly says a lot about this group and how special they are,” Mullen said, “and how committed they are to each other.”