Cooper’s breakout sophomore season helps lead UAlbany women’s basketball into NCAA tournament

UAlbany's Kayla Cooper drives toward the basket against Stony Brook during the regular-season finale at SEFCU Arena on the University at Albany campus Saturday, February 26, 2022.

UAlbany's Kayla Cooper drives toward the basket against Stony Brook during the regular-season finale at SEFCU Arena on the University at Albany campus Saturday, February 26, 2022.

ALBANY — When her role was to come off the bench to provide energy and production, Kayla Cooper made sure she delivered that for the Great Danes.

When she was called upon to start and help lead the UAlbany women’s basketball team, the sophomore did that, too.

And, when head coach Colleen Mullen’s program needed a championship-saving, baseball-style pass, the 6-foot-0 player from Frederick, Maryland, tossed a memorable strike.

Through all of that, the same mentality guided Cooper to success.

“You just have to be ready whenever Coach says,” Cooper said Sunday, two days after she was named the Most Outstanding Player of the America East Conference playoffs.

Cooper earned that honor after averaging 11 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists in UAlbany’s three playoff wins. In the Great Danes’ 56-47 conference championship win Friday against Maine, Cooper contributed eight points, 12 rebounds and a career-high five assists.

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There was no assist, though, rewarded on Cooper’s best pass of the game, the one that returned momentum to the Great Danes when it seemed like Maine was ready to storm to a comeback win.

“That was the game right there,” said UAlbany head coach Colleen Mullen, whose 16th-seeded team is preparing this week to play at 6 p.m. Friday at No. 1 seed Louisville in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

UAlbany never trailed in its matchup Friday at Maine, but the Black Bears — who had defeated UAlbany in 11 consecutive prior meetings — scored four points in approximately 10 seconds to trim the Great Danes’ lead to five points with 2:28 to go. Maine was using its full-court pressure defense, which caused UAlbany headaches in all three meetings between the teams this season, to attempt to mount a comeback, and the Great Danes — who “were in a panic” — needed something to go right to help calm their late-game nerves.

So Mullen called timeout, and then instructed the team to run a play they practice during every pregame shootaround. It’s a play meant to bypass an opponent’s full-court pressure; at its core, it consists of Cooper throwing a pass as far as possible down the court to teammate Ellen Hahne, whose job is to do an all-out sprint to gather the ball.

There was, however, some surprise when Mullen called for the play at Maine’s Memorial Gymnasium.

After all, the Great Danes had never actually used the play in a game.

“Kayla kind of looked at me and looked at the coaches, and she’s like, ‘So, I’m going to throw it?’ ” Mullen said. 

The response: “Oh, you’re going to throw it.”

Any hesitation she had didn’t stay with Cooper as she headed back onto the court. Her one-handed pass traveled approximately 70 feet through the air, and landed perfectly in front of a hard-charging Hahne, who collected the ball and was fouled seconds later. The free throw Hahne made allowed the Great Danes to take a deep breath, and started a game-ending 11-7 stretch for the program.

“Kayla has practiced that throw,” Mullen said, “[but] I don’t know if she’s ever thrown it as well.”

Throughout this season, though, Cooper has surprised in a good way for the Great Danes. She came off the team’s bench for its first 11 games, then became one of the team’s go-to players once she was inserted into the team’s starting lineup after the club returned from a COVID-related pause in its season. In games against Division I opponents, Cooper averaged 8.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game off the bench this season, then increased those marks to 11.6 and 7.7, respectively, in games she started. Overall this season, Cooper is averaging 11.1 points and 7.2 rebounds in 25.7 minutes per game as the Great Danes head into their program’s first NCAA tournament game since 2017.

As a freshman, Cooper averaged 5.9 points and 4.8 rebounds in 18.4 minutes per game. That season, as it did for nearly every college basketball team, included numerous stoppages for pandemic-related reasons, and Mullen has mentioned several times this season that the unusual nature of the 2020-21 season kept Cooper from showing more of what she was capable of doing on the court.

“She actually never really realized what her potential was, but, as coaches, we saw it in her,” Mullen said. “We knew she was special.”

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Cooper is a versatile player who can attack from the perimeter, but one of the unique pieces to her game is her footwork near the basket. She pivots and spins to find ways past defenders, sometimes executing multiple rotations before going up for a shot. She credits her dad, R. John Cooper, for helping her in the offseason with her footwork, while UAlbany assistant coach Yvonne Hawkins helps her fine-tune moves during the season — but, also, a lot of the player’s maneuvers around the basket are unplanned.

“Really, when I’m doing it, I’m really just thinking [that] maybe if I spin this way and spin again, [my defender is] going to jump eventually, and then somewhere’s going be open,” Kayla Cooper said.

After starting this season as a bench player, Cooper earned a second-team all-conference selection on her way to taking Most Outstanding Player honors for the playoffs. Her focus each day, though, remains on getting better.

“I know I still have a lot to learn,” Cooper said, “and a lot to develop in my game.”

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