It was a question that Great Danes head coach Colleen Mullen initially responded to with a good-natured one one of her own: “What am I going to do about that?”
That was Mullen’s quick reaction to a query after Wednesday’s blowout win against UMBC regarding how she’ll set her starting lineup when Ellen Hahne (health-and-safety protocols) is able to return for the UAlbany women’s basketball team.
Mullen, speaking Thursday with reporters, said she had no update on Hahne’s playing status, which means there’s little reason to believe the 5-foot-11 perimeter player will play in Saturday’s showdown at Stony Brook with first place in the America East Conference at stake.
Hahne is arguably UAlbany’s top all-around player, and her absence a season ago would have likely meant the Great Danes had little chance to win a game against one of the America East’s top teams.
This season, UAlbany’s roster packs a lot more talent — and that’s been evident with Hahne unable to play, as Kayla Cooper has stepped into the senior’s starting spot and played as well as anyone in the conference. Hahne has missed each game of UAlbany’s 4-1 America East start, and Cooper is averaging 17 points and 8.4 rebounds during that stretch, which ranks her second and fourth, respectively, in the league in those categories during conference-only games.
When Hahne became unavailable to play, Cooper was an easy choice to slide into the starting lineup because of her positional fit with a group that regularly includes backcourt players Grace Heeps and Lilly Phillips, and frontcourt players Lucia Decortes and Helene Haegerstrand. What wasn’t as obvious, though, was the production Cooper — a 6-foot-0 sophomore wing player from Maryland capable of playing multiple positions — would offer once inserted into the starting lineup.
After her recent batch of standout games, Cooper now leads the 11-5 Great Danes in points (12.3) and rebounds (seven) on a per-game basis for the whole season, and Mullen said Wednesday that Cooper’s “got to be in the starting lineup” if she continues to produce like that.
But with Hahne expected to continue to miss time, UAlbany doesn’t have any starting-lineup drama — and, even after Hahne returns, Mullen and the Great Danes don’t expect there to be any.
Cooper said Thursday that “it’s been an incredible opportunity to start,” and that doing so gave her a “confidence boost that I’ve needed,” but also that a future lineup change that finds her starting off games on the bench won’t affect her approach.
“I just think that I’ll always be ready, no matter if I’m starting or not,” Cooper said.
That’s the type of mindset Mullen needs the players on her talent-rich roster to possess — and she’s confident they do, and will keep moving forward.
“They know how balanced we are,” Mullen said. “They trust each other. They believe in one another. And, I think, one of the reasons why we’ve been having success is because of our culture.”
Stony Brook has five double-digit scorers on its roster, and the talent disparity between the reigning America East champions and the Great Danes was evident last season when the Seawolves swept two meetings between the SUNY rivals.
This season, any gap between the teams is a small one. A defensive-minded team allowing the second-fewest points per game in the country at 48.2, UAlbany only has two double-digit scorers, but the Great Danes’ impressive depth shows most vividly in that they have eight players averaging 20-plus minutes.
“I think they know that each of them individually is talented,” Mullen said, “but they know the strength of those individuals is the team.”
Multiple players could make a case they deserve more minutes, shots or starts, but Mullen said she has players that “give up their personal glory for the team, and that’s why this team is special.”
UAlbany, which has won eight of its last nine games, will be a better team when Hahne returns — and Mullen expects the senior from Sweden’s return to be a controversy-free one when it happens.
“When people are worried about their playing time or their starting [spots], that’s when teams aren’t going to be championship-level teams,” Mullen said, “and that’s what I think makes our team different, because they’re that unselfish.”