ALBANY — Sounds simple.
But it’s not always easy to admit.
So it was no small thing that head coach Colleen Mullen and all-around standout Kayla Cooper both swiftly tossed aside after Tuesday’s practice any notion that the UAlbany women’s basketball team had any worthwhile “excuses” for its loss earlier this month at Maine, an opponent the Great Danes know they need to — finally — find a way past if they want to win an America East Conference championship this year.
“It’s really not about excuses. It’s about playing better,” Mullen said ahead of Wednesday’s 7 p.m. rematch with Maine at SEFCU Arena. “Maine outplayed us. They were the better team. We were evenly matched the whole game, [then] they made bigger plays down the stretch. We didn’t. We just didn’t play for 40 minutes.”
“There’s a lot of things we can say,” Cooper said, “but I just don’t think we played the best that we all can.”
Since UAlbany’s streak of six consecutive league championships ended in 2017, Maine has emerged as the America East’s top program. Maine has won three regular-season championships and played in two NCAA tournaments since UAlbany’s fantastic run ended, and head coach Amy Vachon’s team is — regardless of Wednesday’s outcome at SEFCU Arena — likely set to be the No. 1 seed for the conference playoffs this year, too.
This season’s Maine club lacks some of the firepower it possessed in recent seasons. It’s a less-experienced group, but one that still has as much talent as anyone in the America East and likely has improved more than any other team in the league since the start of conference play. Maine won two of its first nine games, but heads to Albany looking to pick up a sweep of the Great Danes and the program’s 10th consecutive win.
“Maine is a very well-balanced team. They’re well-coached. They get better every game,” Mullen said. “With getting better, they get more confident — and that’s something that Amy Vachon has done just a tremendous job with [for] her program.”
Mullen is never shy about complimenting the job Vachon has done at Maine. The Black Bears’ program is one that’s defeated UAlbany in 10 consecutive meetings, and Mullen has coached the Great Danes for the last nine of those games. It seemed like that streak was ready to end when UAlbany headed to Maine earlier this month, but the Black Bears earned a 64-55 win that night in a contest that saw Maine make 56.3% of its shots against the Great Danes’ defense, which allows the fewest points per game — 48.3 — in the country. In the fourth quarter, Maine was the more poised club, and took advantage of UAlbany miscues in a period that saw the Great Danes outscored 19-12.
“You can’t have those types of breakdowns against Maine,” Mullen said. “We didn’t play tendencies well enough. We let players do things that they want to do, and we just didn’t make them feel uncomfortable enough.”
While Maine (12-3 league, 15-10 overall) lost some of its top players from a season ago, its roster still includes the America East’s top scorer (Anne Simon, 16.1 points per game) and rebounder (Maeve Carroll, 8.6 rebounds per game), plus other weapons. UAlbany (12-4, 19-8) relies on balanced scoring with Helene Haegerstrand’s 12.1 points per game leading the way, but the Great Danes’ offense has slowed as the season has moved along. UAlbany is averaging 57.8 points per game, and has only scored more than 60 points in one game in the last month.
UAlbany’s top advantage for its rematch with Maine?
The Great Danes are a perfect 13-0 at home this season — but Mullen said she’s stressed to her team that it cannot take anything for granted at SEFCU Arena,
“We didn’t become 13-0 on our home court because we just showed up, and it’s our home court and we get lucky,” Mullen said. “You have to will it to happen and you have to execute a game plan.”
Cooper said protecting SEFCU Arena is important, but trying to keep that zero in the team’s home loss column doesn’t add “any pressure for us at all” for the Great Danes.
“No matter where we’re playing, we always want to win,” Cooper said. “We always want to just play together, but just the fact that we have been undefeated at home is pretty nice, so we just want to keep that going.”
After playing Maine, UAlbany will wrap up its regular season Saturday with a home game against first-place Stony Brook (14-2, 23-3), a program that’s ineligible for the America East playoffs. Regardless of how UAlbany’s game before that goes, the Great Danes know they likely will need to face Maine again if they’re going to advance to the NCAA tournament. Mullen said a regular-season win against Maine would do a lot to improve the Great Danes’ chances in a potential Round 3 between the clubs, which appear likely to be the top two seeds for the conference playoffs.
“We’ve talked a lot about just maintaining your composure, and trusting your preparation, and having confidence in yourselves, and just going out there and playing,” Mullen said. “That’s what we need to focus on doing.”
In short: UAlbany needs to play better against Maine than it did earlier this month.
“This time around, we’ve got to defend tendencies. We have to play lockdown defense,” Mullen said. “We’ve got to handle their runs because they can score in bunches — and, then, offensively, we really need to take advantage of some of the mismatches that we have, and our size on the offensive end.”