ALBANY — It looked like a long week was ahead of the UAlbany women’s basketball program.
A long run and a long pass from Grace Heeps changed that, and delivered the Great Danes the signature win they craved — as well as the No. 2 seed for the America East Conference playoffs that start next weekend.
“Well,” UAlbany head coach Colleen Mullen said after her team’s 57-56 win Saturday against Stony Brook, “I’m certainly not going to stop smiling, at least until Monday.”
That’s when the Great Danes will start preparing for the playoffs, which UAlbany enters after ending its regular-season finale on a 13-0 run at SEFCU Arena. UAlbany trailed by as many as 16 points in the fourth quarter and was down by a dozen points with less than four minutes to go, but found a way to win and secure Mullen’s first 20-win season since her hire to lead the program in 2018.
Layups from Ellen Hahne and Kayla Cooper started UAlbany’s game-ending run, then Helene Haegerstrand scored the next four points. A 3-pointer from Heeps with less than a minute to play brought UAlbany within 56-55 of the visiting Seawolves, but Heeps’ best offensive moment came on the Great Danes’ next possession.
Needing to inbound the ball from the sideline, Heeps dished a two-handed, overhead pass — “a perfect pass,” Mullen said — over the Stony Brook defender guarding her and found the 6-foot-1 Haegerstrand — with Stony Brook’s 5-foot-7 Gigi Gonzalez switched onto her — for a go-ahead layup with 15.3 seconds left in regulation.
“At first, I didn’t see [Haegerstrand] because [Stony Brook’s Anastasia] Warren was guarding me out-of-bounds, and kind of taking that away,” Heeps said. “But, then, I was like, ‘Oh, she’s got a little girl on her, I’m going to throw it up there,’ and I knew [Haegerstrand] was going to go and get it, and get a layup.”
UAlbany had previously run a similar play, and Mullen said she’d noticed that Stony Brook had switched on a screen and ended up with a shorter player defending Haegerstrand. Betting Stony Brook would use the same coverage, UAlbany ran a play trying to get a guard switched onto Haegerstrand — and that’s just what happened.
Not far from Heeps on the sideline, UAlbany associate head coach Megan Methven was repeatedly shouting “Look inside,” to Heeps, and Haegerstrand was trying to use subtle body language to do the same.
“I was trying to nod with my head, like ‘Throw it, throw it,’ because I know if someone would, it was going to be Grace,” Haegerstrand said. “So that’s a huge pass, and for her to throw that in that situation takes confidence.”
UAlbany (13-5 league, 20-9 overall) had to stop Stony Brook (14-4, 23-5) on one more possession to seal the win, and the Great Danes did when Kelis Corley’s shot — with two UAlbany defenders around her — was off the mark at the buzzer.
UAlbany excitedly celebrated on the court, and the reason for that went beyond simply the grand comeback the team had just pulled off. The Great Danes were coming off their first home loss of the season, to Maine on Wednesday, and a loss to Stony Brook would’ve sent UAlbany into the playoffs off back-to-back losses and as a No. 3 seed slotted to play only one home playoff game.
Instead, the Great Danes headed into the postseason with the type of statement victory they coveted all season, and in dramatic fashion for good measure.
“But . . . you can’t be satisfied,” Mullen said. “This can’t be the peak.”
Haegerstrand scored 18 points and Heeps added 11 to lead UAlbany, while India Pagan scored 18 for Stony Brook. While UAlbany will head into the league playoffs against a to-be-determined opponent, Stony Brook — which, pending the result of Sunday’s Maine vs. UMBC game, could still tie Maine for the regular-season title — faces an uncertain playing future since the program is ineligible for the conference tournament due to the school’s impending departure for the Colonial Athletic Association.
“This is tough, and I don’t think people realize that,” Stony Brook first-year head coach Ashley Langford said of her team’s predicament.
To start Saturday’s game, it looked like Stony Brook — last year’s America East champion — might cruise to victory. UAlbany missed eight shots from the field, committed three turnovers and trailed 11-1 before it made its first field goal. That 3 from Heeps, though, started a 12-0 UAlbany run and the Great Danes were only down 26-22 at halftime.
Stony Brook brought a 47-33 lead into the final quarter and scored the first basket of the fourth, but UAlbany answered with a 6-0 run on made 3s from Haegerstrand and Morgan Haney. Stony Brook scored the next four points, but Langford said she could sense the game’s momentum had shifted away from the Seawolves after those shots from Haegerstrand and Haney.
“To me, that’s when it turned,” Langford said. “Yeah, we were still up 10, but it turned right then.”
Stony Brook led 56-44 after a 3 from Nairimar Vargas-Reyes, but the Seawolves didn’t score against UAlbany’s best-in-the-nation scoring defense in the game’s final five minutes. Stony Brook missed its final eight shots of the game and committed five turnovers during UAlbany’s game-winning run.
In America East play this season before Saturday’s win, UAlbany was 0-3 against Maine and Stony Brook — the teams above the Great Danes in the standings — and 12-2 against the rest of the league. Heeps said earning a win against Stony Brook, even though the Seawolves won’t be in this year’s postseason field, shows the Great Danes they have what it takes to win an America East championship this March.
“Beating Stony Brook now proves that we are capable of doing it. We can do it,” Heeps said. “When we’re all bought in, [when] we’re all on the same page, bought into the game plan, know personnel, know what we’re trying to do — we’re capable of it. So, now, we’ve got to take that win and [let it] propel us forward into [the] playoffs.”