Following the UAlbany women’s basketball program’s non-conference finale, head coach Colleen Mullen said the Great Danes’ focus ahead of Thursday’s 7 p.m. America East Conference opener vs. Vermont would be “recharging our batteries.”
To this point in the season, though, the reigning America East champions have never been fully charged up for a game.
That should — knock on wood — change when UAlbany takes on the Catamounts at Hudson Valley Community College’s McDonough Sports Complex in Troy. For the first time this season, Mullen’s team loaded with returning players from last season’s trip to the NCAA tournament is expected to be at full strength.
UAlbany finished 6-8 in its non-conference season, a mark that can be looked at a couple of ways.
The glass-half-empty take is that it’s tough that UAlbany, which returned its top-nine scorers, couldn’t do more to help out its resume for a better potential NCAA tournament seed after receiving a No. 16 spot last season.
The glass-half-full take, though, is that it’s encouraging UAlbany registered the same number of wins against Division I opponents this season as it did during last season’s non-conference slate, despite each of its top-six returning scorers missing at least some action and playing a tougher schedule.
After UAlbany’s Dec. 20 loss at Syracuse, a game that wrapped a stretch that saw the Great Danes play three of four games against power-conference programs, Mullen said she reminded her players that winning a championship didn’t come easy the prior season.
“But if you want to be able to get what you want, it’s about the process,” Mullen said she told her players. “It’s about learning. It’s about growing.”
Kayla Cooper, last year’s breakout star for the Great Danes who then missed the majority of this season’s non-conference slate, said she’s seen her team embrace that “process” so far this season.
“I think we definitely learned how to jell more together,” said Cooper, who missed UAlbany’s first 11 games this season. “You know, a lot of us were playing out of position and everything, and we had to learn new roles.”
Meanwhile, Vermont (8-4) had a much different type of non-conference season than UAlbany (6-8), and the Catamounts have likely had their trip to play the Great Danes circled for quite some time. UAlbany and Vermont split the regular-season series last season, but the Great Danes then knocked off the Catamounts in the America East semifinals.
Like UAlbany, Vermont returned much of its core, and senior guard Emma Utterback leads the Catamounts with 14.9 points and five assists per game this season. Unlike UAlbany, the Catamounts’ top-four scorers this season have appeared in all of the team’s games. Ten Vermont players have appeared in double-digit games, while only four UAlbany players have appeared that often despite the Great Danes playing two more non-conference games than the Catamounts.
“We had challenges. We had adversity,” Mullen said of UAlbany’s non-conference season. “But we’re going to be better and stronger for it.”
Ellen Hahne, UAlbany’s leading per-game scorer this season at 14.9 points per game, is expected to play against Vermont after missing the Great Danes’ last three games due to health-and-safety protocols. Helene Haegerstrand, who missed UAlbany’s first four games, is the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.8 points and is also the reigning conference player of the week.
“We’ve had a good non-conference. Tough schedule. Good games, cool opponents,” Haegerstrand said after the loss to Syracuse. “We played a good non-conference schedule. We’ve had our ups and downs, players coming in and out, [but] learning to play with each other is definitely going to benefit us coming into conference [play].”
Contact Michael Kelly at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMichaelKelly.