ALBANY — It’s a marathon that ends in a sprint, and UAlbany men’s basketball head coach Dwayne Killings said his team is ready to embrace the single-elimination nature of a postseason that follows a 30-game regular season.
“We have a one-game season at this point. and we’re going to Hartford to play against a team that just beat us,” Killings said Friday. “So I don’t think you need any motivation. We don’t need any special pep talks. We just have to be who we’re capable of being.”
UAlbany had the chance to earn a home game in the America East Conference quarterfinals, but its 67-55 loss Tuesday to Hartford ended that — and Hartford’s loss two days later to UMass Lowell resulted in the Great Danes and Hawks meeting in the first playoff game for both teams. UAlbany (No. 5 seed, 13-17 overall) and Hartford (No. 4, 11-19) meet for the second year in a row in the quarterfinals at Chase Family Arena in West Hartford, Connecticut.
This year’s postseason matchup between the teams takes place Sunday at 2 p.m. Hartford eliminated UAlbany last season in a well-played 83-77 game on its way to winning the league championship, while the defeat for the Great Danes ended up serving as the final game of Will Brown’s two-decade tenure leading their program.
UAlbany and Hartford split their regular-season meetings, as each won on the other’s home court. While the Hawks won the matchup played just days ago, Great Danes guard Matt Cerruti said his club is a confident one heading into the playoffs.
“We’re excited. Obviously, we’ve done some good things against them, and we’ve done some bad things against them,” said Cerruti, who was named Friday a third-team all-conference selection. “So we’re just going to get down to work, watch our film from the two times we played them, and see what we can do to improve on [our past matchups], and see how we can flow a little bit better offensively and hopefully come out with a win.”
The third meeting between the teams should be quite a bit different from the first two, and not only because of the game’s stakes. Hartford didn’t have two of its best players — Moses Flowers and Austin Williams — when the team’s met Tuesday, but Hartford head coach John Gallagher said after that game at SEFCU Arena that he expected to have both players for the playoffs. Meanwhile, UAlbany didn’t have standout forward De’Vondre Perry for the club’s 71-52 win at Hartford, and Tuesday’s loss to the Hawks served as Perry’s first game back from what had previously been described as a season-ending knee injury.
Perry — who was UAlbany’s leading scorer before his injury — scored six points in 22 minutes Tuesday off the bench, and there is a challenge for the Great Danes in bringing Perry back into their mix at such a crucial point of the season. An area of focus this week was trying to figure out how Perry’s return changes the team’s playing rotation and style.
“It’s been a little different. Of course, some guys’ minutes, shots have decreased — and that’s just part of the game,” Perry said. “Guys are adapting.”
Cerruti said the Great Danes are OK with roles changing. To succeed in the postseason, Cerruti said, UAlbany’s best chance is with Perry playing a major role despite missing nearly all of the second half of the team’s regular season.
“He’s just got to be the player he is, and then it’s on [the rest of] us to kind of figure that part out,” Cerruti said. “He can’t shy away, and not play the way he’s used to playing.”
With Perry out, Jamel Horton — the America East Defensive Player of the Year and a second-team all-conference selection — emerged as UAlbany’s top all-around player. He said he’s confident the Great Danes are ready to “accept the challenge” of the pressure that comes along with the postseason.
“Absolutely. You’ve got to love this time of year,” Horton said. “This is everything you’re playing for; trying to get a conference championship, trying to get to the NCAA tournament.”
“It’s March,” Killings said, “and it’s time to see what we’re capable of.”
Both UAlbany and Hartford have a player trying to extend an extra-long college career.
Hartford guard Traci Carter and UAlbany guard Chuck Champion — both Philadelphia natives — each gained extra years of playing eligibility due to injuries and the NCAA’s decision to grant an additional season of play to anyone that competed during the 2020-21 season amid extensive pandemic-related restrictions.
Carter started his college career in 2015 at Marquette, while Champion made his college debut in 2016 at Loyola (MD). Carter spent two seasons at Marquette, two at La Salle and three at Hartford, and Champion is in his second season at UAlbany after spending four seasons with Loyola.
When UAlbany and Hartford met last year in the playoffs, both teams shot better than 50% from the field and several current members of the teams had strong performances.
Carter led Hartford in that game with 20 points, while Horton and Jarvis Doles were two of five UAlbany players to record double-digit scoring. In that game, Horton had a dozen points, eight rebounds and seven assists, while Doles made 8 of 9 shots in scoring 16 points.
“We have guys who have shown they can perform in playoff games, so that definitely gives you a boost of confidence,” Horton said. “But we’re going to need some new guys to step up, too. It’s going to take a total team effort and it starts with preparation.”
Carter is one of several key contributors back from last season for Hartford, which is leaving the America East after this season. The school is moving its athletic programs from competing at the Division I level to the Division I levels.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
Sunday’s other America East quarterfinals are No. 1 Vermont against No. 8 NJIT, No. 2 UMBC vs. No. 7 UMass Lowell and No. 3 New Hampshire vs. No. 6 Binghamton.
UAlbany and Hartford are the only teams playing against each other in the quarterfinals that split their regular-season series. Favored Vermont and New Hampshire swept their respective opponents, while seventh-seeded UMass Lowell won both previous games against second-seeded UMBC.