ALBANY — If you can see it, with a clear eye, you can do it.
Setting a goal in August six months before a season-defining moment is one thing.
Meticulously envisioning every detail, mapping causation and consequence on a micro level the day before that moment is another.
It’s the difference between an aspiration and a concrete plan, between raw, rough materials and a sharp-edged crystal with precise angles and clean lines.
The UAlbany women’s basketball team experienced both this season, proposing an America East Tournament championship as the only acceptable result a few months before the Great Danes’ regular-season opener.
The final and most crucial step, though, was to develop a means of solving the Maine Black Bears in the AE title game on March 11, in The Pit, Maine’s wonderfully imposing gym in Orono, 400 miles away from the UAlbany campus and even farther away metaphorically, based on the Great Danes’ lack of success against the Black Bears over the years.
In fact, head coach Colleen Mullen had never defeated Maine in three-plus seasons, but the breakthrough moment in a breakthrough season happened exactly as the Great Danes saw it happening. It was the product of a season-long evolution, but also one sharp day of preparation, and if there was one takeaway from the Great Danes’ 56-47 win over Maine upon which the success of their entire 2021-22 season hinged, it was that imagining that result is just as important as going out there and executing it.
“The players knew there wasn’t this huge difference in our skill levels and that we could compete with them,” Mullen said during a post-season press conference on Wednesday, five days after UAlbany lost to top-seeded Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“But our staff put together an amazing visualization exercise the day before we played in the championship game. We played out the whole game. And the way the game kind of went was very similar to what we invented was going to happen.”
In summarizing the 23-10 season, Mullen identified several important games, all the way back to the non-conference portion of the schedule in November, and including turning points like the 57-56 win over Stony Brook on Feb. 26, when UAlbany trailed by 16 heading into the fourth quarter.
The home-and-home series against Maine was more of the same in the rivalry, as the Black Bears swept to run their winning streak against UAlbany to 11 games dating back to 2018.
Mullen saw encouraging signs, though, which was an important component to their plan for the AE title game.
“When we lost here, and even up there, they were two very different games, but also very close games,” Mullen said. “Up there, we felt really good about how we played offensively. Defensively, we had breakdowns.
“Here, it was a really low-scoring game, and we felt much better about how we defended them, and offensively we really struggled.”
The “invention” on the eve of the championship game needed to get those two pieces fused.
It also was forced to take into account that UAlbany’s best defensive player, 6-foot-3 center Lucia Decortes, likely wouldn’t be available against Maine because of a lower leg issue.
In fact, she didn’t play, but the Great Danes’ second-ranked defense, based on opponents’ per-game scoring average, did its thing, while the offense was dialed-in and balanced from the start.
They worked their way into open shots and made them, notably sophomore Morgan Haney, who was 4-for-5 from 3-point range and scored 20 points.
“I was just completely focused,” she said after the game. “Going into this game, there was nothing that I was going to let hold me back. And, fortunately for me, the first shot went in — and after that, it just felt pretty good.”
“I think it was a major psychological hump to get over,” Mullen said on Wednesday. “Since I’ve been here, we hadn’t beaten Maine. Eleven straight losses. They’ve been our Achilles’ heel. They’re well-coached. They’re disciplined, and [head coach] Amy [Vachon] always does a good job of having a really good game plan.
“You could really sense that, in that third game, there wasn’t that hesitation or that questioning of ourselves. When Maine went on a run, we were able to answer. They never took the lead in that game. We really dictated the tempo and maintained our composure. And I really think it had to do with the fact that we focused mentally on the opponent and if we just play our game, stay together and visualize it happening, it was going to happen. Luckily, it did.”
The evolution leading up to the defining moment traces back to when Mullen arrived four seasons ago.
She described how it was a long grind to get the Great Danes to a point where the offense could operate smoothly, without so much forced choreography from the coaches, and buttressed all along by a defensive identity that could lean on effort no matter how much talent was on the roster at any given time.
The 81-53 loss to national championship contender Louisville in the NCAA Tournament did nothing to dull that gleam, if that’s where you see yourself.
“Being able to make a goal in August to be champions and to see that through, what an amazing experience,” Mullen said.
“Becoming champions and cutting down the nets, for the players, that’s validation and realizing a goal and having it all come to fruition is what you dream of as a coach. And having the opportunity to go down to Louisville and play a team that has some of the best players in the country, on the national stage on ESPN2, to be able to showcase all their hard work, I couldn’t be more proud and honored to be the head coach at UAlbany.”