ALBANY — It became a running joke during the UAlbany women’s basketball season that the club’s success away from its home SEFCU Arena wasn’t so much based on execution or strategy, but the answer to a simple question: How had Gina Castelli traveled to the game?
If the one-time Siena coach traveled with the team, UAlbany lost.
If the UAlbany program’s executive coach for program development and player relations traveled separately, the Great Danes won.
“So,” Castelli said, “I started mostly driving myself.”
Fortunately for Castelli, that recently switched. Castelli traveled with the rest of the Great Danes ahead of their America East Conference championship game last week at Maine, but switched up her pregame routine in order to bring better luck.
Naturally, it worked, UAlbany defeated the Black Bears program that had defeated it in 11 consecutive matchups — and Castelli could plan to travel with the Great Danes, rather than need to find her own way, to the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky where 16th-seeded UAlbany will play top-seeded Louisville this Friday at 6 p.m. in the NCAA tournament’s first round.
“This team’s a really special group,” Castelli said earlier this week, “so I’m excited for everybody that we’re all able to have this experience together.”
Castelli joined the Great Danes this past summer for what she described at the time as a “retirement job” after serving as a head coach at Siena for 22 seasons and Le Moyne for an additional eight. Her relationship with UAlbany head coach Colleen Mullen goes back to when Castelli recruited Mullen as a player, and Castelli said it’s been a “wonderful experience” to play a role this season with the Great Danes after she stepped down from her position at Le Moyne last spring.
“My role here became more that I worked with players in terms of leadership and culture-type things,” said Castelli, who guided Siena to a program-best 336 wins from 1990 to 2012 and was named MAAC Coach of the Year on five occasions. “Then, with Colleen, I did a lot of game adjustments, X’s and O’s, practice suggestions, and some scout things — so all the things I love to do. It ended up being great. You know, honestly, I have worked at a lot of places, and the staff here is wonderful, and Colleen was so great about being open to so many suggestions.”
Castelli, who led Siena to a spot in the NCAA tournament in 2001, hadn’t served in a non-head-coaching role since she was a member of Jim Jabir’s coaching staff at Siena during the 1989-90 season. Castelli succeeded Jabir — who is now back at Siena for a second tour as head coach — in 1990, and the Canisius graduate said it was a credit to Mullen that she was willing to have a former head coach on her staff.
“It takes a really confident person in a role like that to be able to bring somebody in like me and be willing to listen,” Castelli said.
Castelli said the “whole [UAlbany] staff was like that,” and she enjoyed the camaraderie of the group that Mullen leads.
“I think we all knew that we had a special group of kids, so we knew that we could do well this year and we were all open to all the suggestions anyone had,” Castelli said.
EMBRACING THE MOMENT
Mullen said this week has been “business as usual” for the Great Danes in terms of their game preparation, but she also wants to make sure her players are enjoying themselves.
“You know, my main thing is [that] I know how special this is, how hard it is, to get to this point. This is only the third time I’ve been to an NCAA tournament in over 20 years of being a player and a coach,” said Mullen, whose team left its campus Wednesday to fanfare ahead of traveling to Louisville.
Mullen’s college basketball career started as a player at Rhode Island in 1998, and UAlbany is the eighth school the 41-year-old has been a member of during her time in college athletics. At Army, working for then-head coach Dave Magarity, Mullen twice made it to the NCAA tournament, while this year’s trip to the NCAA tournament with UAlbany is Mullen’s first as a head coach.
What she’s learned from past trips to the NCAA tournament, Mullen said, is to “be in the moment, “but also to “trust your preparation [and] be the same person,” despite the stage.
“I really want my players to feel confidence,” Mullen said. “I want them to go out there and be able to showcase all of their hard work, and feel good about that.”
Several Great Danes are dealing with injuries, but it seems only senior center Lucia Decortes (lower leg) could potentially miss Friday’s game at Louisville.
Decortes barely played in UAlbany’s America East semifinal win against Vermont, then didn’t play in the title game at Maine. During UAlbany’s practice that was open Tuesday to media members, both Decortes and Helene Haegerstrand — both starters — didn’t participate, but Mullen said Haegerstrand would be available against Louisville and Decortes status was to be determined.
“This is where everybody is at this time of the year,” Mullen said. “These are long seasons. Lots of pounding.”