From underdog to prohibitive favorite in one year.
That’s the scenario for the top-seeded University at Albany women’s basketball team, which hosts second-seeded Hartford (21-10) tonight at 7 in the America East Conference tournament championship game. At stake for the Great Danes will be their second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
UAlbany (26-3) dominated the conference all season, leading in virtually every statistical category en route to a 16-0 league record. The Danes have won 18 straight games.
“I think Hartford is a very good team, but we are, too,” said UAlbany head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson with a wry smile. “It’s such a good game. They are well-coached, they have plenty of seniors and they have some excellent scorers.”
The Great Danes know that an upset is always a possibility, but they feel confident they can take whatever punch the Hawks throw at them.
“We don’t care if the game is ugly. The uglier, the better it is for us,” said Abrahamson-Henderson, who was named the league’s Coach of the Year for the second straight season. “The best thing is that we are at home, and I can lean on my four seniors — Keyana [Williams], Lindsey [Lowrie], Julie [Forster] and Ebone [Henry].”
Abrahamson-Henderson said her team won’t be as rusty tonight as it was in the conference semifinals, when it faced New Hampshire after earning a bye in the quarterfinals. Maine was supposed to play UAlbany in the opening round, but the Black Bears pulled out of the tournament because of a bus accident the previous week. That left the Danes with more time off than they expected.
“Everyone is ready to go now,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “We won’t change what we do. We are fresh, healthy — knock on wood — and prepared.”
The UAlbany coach said that the Danes have everything going for them, including the homecourt advantage, senior leadership and an extremely deep bench.
“And we know how to adjust,” she said. “If something happens, we’ll make a change.”
One of the biggest weapons the Great Danes have going for them is Henry, the league’s Player of the Year. Henry, also the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year for the third time, is UAlbany’s all-time leading scorer. She is also among the program’s career leaders in assists, rebounds and steals.
“I want to go out with a bang and with another ring,” Henry said. “We want to stick to the game plan and go hard. If we stick together, we’ll be fine.
“We came out a little rusty against New Hampshire, and we were a little nervous, as well,” she said.
Henry said the Great Danes won’t take the Hawks lightly, especially since one of their victories over Hartford was in overtime.
“Hartford has shooters, and they knocked down key shots against us when we were in the zone,” she said.
Forster, the team’s all-time leading rebounder who has more than 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career points, said the switch from underdog to favorite isn’t a big deal for the Great Danes.
“We just have to stay focused on what we do,” she said. “We can’t control them. In the end, we can only control ourselves.
“The environment here [SEFCU Arena] will be great. We know the game won’t be determined in the first 20 minutes. It will be a game for the full 40 minutes,” said Forster, a first-team all-conference selection.
“The good thing for us seniors is that we can draw on what it felt like to go to the NCAAs last year. We know that we can leave it all on the floor in this game.
“We know that the favorites don’t win all the time. It doesn’t matter what rank you have going into a tournament. You see upsets all the time. We know that, so we won’t take them lightly.”
Henry tops the Danes in scoring at better than 14 points per game, while Lowrie, conference Rookie of the Year Shereesha Richards and
6-foot-8 sophomore Megan Craig, the league’s tallest player, each contribute 10 points per game. The Danes average 67 points a game, and allow just 48 ppg.
Hartford, which averages 58 points per game and gives up 53, is led by 5-9 sophomore guard Amber Bepko and 6-1 senior forward Nikkia Smith at 10.4 ppg. Another important post player is Maple Hill graduate Katie Roth, a 6-2 redshirt freshman.