UAlbany has stiff WNIT test in UMass

UAlbany's Kayla Cooper handles the ball in front of NJIT's Lilly Anderson in January.

UAlbany's Kayla Cooper handles the ball in front of NJIT's Lilly Anderson in January.

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ALBANY — The UAlbany women’s basketball team is still playing. How long it stays that way won’t be easy.

The Great Danes drew a formidable foe in the WNIT: Massachusetts, the co-champion of the Atlantic 10 with a 26-6 overall record. The teams square off in UMass’ Mullins Center at 7 p.m. Friday in the first round.

UAlbany (22-11) has had to lick wounds from its 38-36 loss to its fellow America East regular-season co-champion Vermont in the league tournament last Friday, find out who it was playing on Monday morning and then prepare.

“I mean, that weekend was tough,” said senior captain Grace Heeps, who spent her freshman year at UMass before transferring to UAlbany. “But I think we’ve had plenty of time to kind of reflect and look back. And now, if anything, we want to move forward. A lot of teams don’t get to play postseason. Like, every other team in America East, except Vermont, is not playing.”

UAlbany coach Colleen Mullen said it was important for her team to both acknowledge the disappointment of the Vermont loss as it tried to advance to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year, as well as absorb what a strong season it has had.

“Even getting back to the championship game, that in itself is a huge accomplishment,” Mullen said. “A 20-win season, regular-season championship, you know, no home court. I think all of that combined, you really have to focus on turning the page. And so really being able to celebrate such a great season.”

Mullen knows that scenario-wise, it will be like looking in a mirror when it sees UMass — went to the NCAA Tournament last year, shared this year’s regular-season title, lost in the conference final, anxious to prove itself again. Statistically and style-wise, however, they are opposites. UAlbany is a defense-first team. UMass wants to showcase its offense.

“Really dictating the tempo is going to be huge [and] taking care of the ball against UMass, because they really like to get out and run and transition. Capitalize on turnovers, capitalize on the box-outs and second-chance opportunities,” Mullen said.

The Minutewomen average 76 points per game, which ranks 27th in the country and is the third-best average of teams UAlbany faced this season, with Ohio State and UNLV finishing higher. The Great Danes allowed those teams 82 and 78 points, respectively, but without their full complement of players.

Four of UMass’ players average double figures, with a fifth sitting at 9.5 ppg. Leading that group is Sam Breen, a 6-foot-1 forward who averages 17.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and is the two-time Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. Sydney Taylor (15.9 ppg) makes 38.2% of her 3-pointers. Destiney Philoxy averages 5.1 assists per game.

“They’re going to try to play fast, we’re going to try to slow the game down,” Mullen said. “Really trying to keep them out of the paint. They’ve got aggressive scores at every position.”

Kayla Cooper, a first-team All-America East player, leads UAlbany with 15.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. The Great Danes’ other first-team selection, Helene Haegerstrand, contributes 14.4 ppg.

“We don’t want it to be our super seniors’ last game, we don’t want it to be anyone else’s last game,” Heeps said. “So really taking this game possession by possession and breaking down player personnel tendencies, and really coming together in this game is going to be crucial.”

Contact Will Springstead at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @WLSpringstead.

Categories: College Sports, Sports, UAlbany

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