Very little has come easy this season for the UAlbany men’s basketball program, which has needed to battle its share of adversity throughout the 2021-22 season.
But, somehow, with two games to go in the regular season, the Great Danes are tied for second place in the America East Conference standings after registering a much-needed win Wednesday against Maine in comeback fashion in Orono, Maine.
The 72-68 victory for UAlbany saw the Great Danes trail by as many as 16 points in the first half. The win was UAlbany’s third in a row by a two-possessions-or-fewer margin.
First-year head coach Dwayne Killings? He said he was far from stressed after his team’s latest close game.
“I’m having the time of my life coaching this team,” Killings said during a postgame teleconference. “I love it.”
UAlbany received big plays from several players, but took the lead for good when Matt Cerruti made a 3-pointer to give the Great Danes a 61-60 lead with less than four minutes to play. Trey Hutcheson followed that Cerruti 3 with a block on the defensive end, then was fouled shooting a 3 of his own, and made all three free throws.
Cerruti took a charge on Maine’s next possession, then made a 3 as he was fouled. The graduate student made the free throw to complete the four-point play and put UAlbany ahead eight with 2:01 left.
Maine scored the next six points to get within 68-66, but the Black Bears’ Maks Klanjscek missed the front end of a one-and-one with 12.5 seconds left, and Maine’s Stephane Ingo was unable to connect on a game-tying shot. UAlbany’s Jarvis Doles grabbed the rebound off Ingo’s miss and made two free throws after he was fouled with 6.1 seconds to go.
From there, Maine’s Byron Ireland converted a layup with 1.2 seconds left, and Hutcheson sealed the win with two free throws with 0.6 seconds remaining.
“It’s that stretch of the season where you’ve just got to find a way,” said UAlbany’s Jamel Horton, who scored 10 of his 14 points after halftime. “Can’t make excuses, can’t worry about circumstances. You just want to find a way to get any win you can get at this point — and we did a great job of that.”
Cerruti had a game-high 18 points for UAlbany (9-7 league, 13-15) overall and played all 40 minutes for Killings’ club, which ended Wednesday tied for second place with UMBC with two games to go in its regular season.
“If he’s tired, doesn’t matter. He’s going to find a way to get it right,” Killings said of Cerruti. “He’s got a high level of toughness. He’s got a great IQ. He wants it. He’s earned my trust. You know, good things happen when Matt Cerruti’s on the basketball floor. . . . When it’s winning time, you want winners on the floor — and that’s why Matt Cerruti is out there.”
Hutcheson had a dozen points, all after halftime, while Justin Neely scored 10.
For Maine (3-13, 6-21), Ireland had 13 points to lead the way.
While a last-place team, Maine had defeated UAlbany at SEFCU Arena earlier this season and appeared ready to earn its first regular-season sweep of the Great Danes since the 2009-10 campaign. UAlbany trailed 37-30 at halftime following an opening 20 minutes that saw Maine lead by as many as 16 points. For the most part, Maine built up its lead in the first half at the foul line. UAlbany committed 13 first-half fouls, and the Black Bears made 10 of 13 free throws.
Horton sat the majority of the first half due to foul trouble, then scored eight points in the first 5:15 of the second half. UAlbany took its first lead of the second half on a 3-pointer from Hutcheson to go ahead 47-46, and the teams exchanged the lead or were tied several times before the Great Danes’ 10-0 run that ended with Cerruti’s four-point play.
“Down 16 on the road is a tough thing to handle, but, at halftime, we kind of just still had this belief in ourselves and still had this fire, and then [we] came out and just kept chopping away at the lead, kept believing and got it done,” Hutcheson said.
UAlbany started this season with losses in seven of its first eight games. Along the way, it lost four players to season-ending injuries, and a recent rough stretch seemed ready to make earning a home playoff game or two an unlikely outcome. UAlbany, though, has won three consecutive games since losing four of five, and the Great Danes have put themselves in position to earn the America East’s No. 2 seed with less than a week to go in its regular season.
Horton, though, said his club’s sole focus right now is on finding a way to win Saturday on Long Island against rival Stony Brook.
“Just beat Stony Brook. We’re not worried about where we are in the rankings, where we are in the standings,” Horton said of the Great Danes’ mindset. “We’re not worried about our home playoff game right now. We’re not worried about our potential matchup. We just want to beat Stony Brook.”