ALBANY — Head coach Colleen Mullen said the expression, or something in the neighborhood of it, multiple times during her club’s regular season.
“The strength of our team,” Mullen would say, “is the team.”
The Great Danes lack superstars, sure, but they play intense defense and have ample depth — and those two factors fueled their program’s first 20-win season since Mullen’s hiring in 2018.
So, in more ways than one, the UAlbany women’s basketball team’s 49-44 victory in the America East Conference quarterfinals Saturday against New Hampshire at SEFCU Arena was earned in fitting fashion.
“It’s the perfect example,” Mullen said.
The game wasn’t an offensive showcase, as UAlbany — which ranks No. 2 in the country in scoring defense — held an opponent to fewer than 50 points for the 17th time this season.
Meanwhile, no UAlbany player reached double-digit scoring until a few minutes into the fourth quarter. UAlbany’s per-game leading scorer — Helene Haegerstrand — only registered three points on 1 of 4 shooting, but the team’s bench outscored New Hampshire’s 26-4.
“Everyone can contribute,” UAlbany freshman Freja Werth said of her team, “so it’s hard to play against us.”
UAlbany (No. 2 seed, 21-9 overall) flirted with falling to New Hampshire (No. 7, 7-21) in an upset, but the Great Danes didn’t panic after falling behind six points in the third quarter. Ellen Hahne scored a pair of layups to get UAlbany going after it scored two points in the opening five-plus minutes of the second half, then Werth soon added a 3-pointer to help the Great Danes enter the fourth quarter only down two.
Kayla Cooper then took her turn, as she scored UAlbany’s first six points of a back-and-forth final quarter that included each team possessing multiple leads. With New Hampshire up 38-37, Werth made a 3 to put the Great Danes ahead with 5:15 left, then Cooper made a pair of go-ahead shots in the next two-and-a-half minutes of action before Werth — off an assist from Cooper — swished another 3 to give the Great Danes their first multiple-possession lead of the fourth quarter with two minutes to play. New Hampshire got within 47-44 and had two chances at that score to get closer, but UAlbany got the stops it needed — plus insurance free throws from Haegerstrand and Morgan Haney — to seal the playoff victory.
“We just found a way to win, and that’s what ‘March Madness’ is all about,” Mullen said.
A freshman guard, Werth had not scored in her last three appearances, but made all four shots — all from 3-point territory — she took against New Hampshire.
“She’s an ‘X’ factor,” Mullen said. “We’ve known that.”
Cooper led the Great Danes in scoring with 14 points, while New Hampshire’s Amanda Torres led all scorers with 16.
UAlbany had swept New Hampshire during the regular season, but Torres said her club was confident heading into the teams’ third matchup this season.
“When playoffs come around, it’s a new season — and that was really our attitude,” Torres said. “Whatever happened with those two games, happened. . . . We knew it was a fresh game, and anyone’s game.”
In Tuesday’s semifinals, UAlbany will host third-seeded Vermont at SEFCU Arena. Vermont — which split its regular-season series with UAlbany — defeated Binghamton in its quarterfinal, while the conference’s other semifinal will pit top-seeded Maine against fourth-seeded NJIT.
Cooper said the Great Danes’ performance Saturday was “definitely not our best,” but also that it “gave us confidence” moving forward.
“This is another game that just shows us that we can play with anybody,” Cooper said. “We didn’t play our best today, and we still gutted it out.”