Megan Craig got the MVP award, but seemed to cherish the paper fathead photo likeness of herself more.
While America East Conference Player of the Year Ebone Henry was being held in check by Hartford, UAlbany’s 6-foot-8 center loomed large and scored 16 points off the bench as the Great Danes won, 61-52, in the AE tournament championship at SEFCU Arena on Saturday night.
That sends UAlbany (27-3) to the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row and completed a 19-0 season in the conference.
Craig, a sophomore from New Zealand, said seeing the huge cutout of her face in the stands had a calming effect on her, and she subsequently provided a pressure release outlet for UAlbany’s offense. Henry, the Danes’ all-time leading scorer, didn’t score a point until midway through the second half, but repeatedly fed Craig in the post.
“Even if Ebone’s not scoring, she’s going to make something happen,” head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “And she had her partner in crime finishing shots.”
“The pep band and the fans, they’re a great group of people, and we think of them as equals,” said Craig, who held the fathead poster during on-court interviews. “I looked up and saw it and thought, ‘OK, we can do this.’ It actually made me less tense.”
There certainly was plenty of reason for tension for UAlbany, which needed overtime to beat Hartford (23-11) the last time the Hawks came to SEFCU.
Hawks junior Nikkia Smith, despite being seven inches shorter than Craig, scored 18 points in that matchup, including a basket inside to tie the game at 52-52 with less than 1:40 left.
Sarah Royals answered for UAlbany, and Craig scored easily on what should have been a turnover that Hartford fumbled away right in front of the UAlbany basket.
From there, the Great Danes made five of six free throws in the final half-minute to close it out.
“It’s crazy; it feels like every game we play is like we’re almost going to lose the game,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “But they stick in there and stay together.”
“Albany knew exactly what they wanted to do at the end,” Hartford head coach Jennifer Rizzotti said. “We knew where they wanted to go with the ball and what kind of shot they wanted to get. And that’s the sign of a really good team.”
It’s a team that now has gone undefeated in the conference and also won the conference tournament for the first time in the America East since Maine did it in 1996.
UAlbany, which lost to Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, is also the eighth team in conference history to win back-to-back titles. The Great Danes have won 28 straight in the conference since last season.
“Wow. That’s all I can say. Wow,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “To go 19-0 in the conference, nobody talks about that, and that it’s impossible to do, I don’t care where you are in the country, if you’re at UConn, no matter what level.”
“I still have to stop and think that, wow, we really did go undefeated,” Henry said. “It was tough. This wasn’t easy for us.”
Hartford made it particularly tough on Henry on Saturday, and also got senior Julie Forster to foul out with 6:58 left.
Henry was just 2-for-9 for five points and had five turnovers in 33 minutes, but she also had six assists, mostly to Craig, and her two baskets had a stabilizing effect when the Hawks were beginning to look like they might have the momentum.
Henry hit a runner with 9:25 left in the second half, her first points of the game, to bring UAlbany within 40-38.
She hit another runner to give the Danes a 42-40 lead with just under eight minutes left.
“I like to get to the basket, and they made sure they had a lot of help side [defense], so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do that,” Henry said. “My jump shot wasn’t falling, so I knew I had to do things in other areas. I knew I could attack the edge and get it to our post players. I knew I had to rebound and play defense.”
The Great Danes took a 49-43 lead with 5:18 left, then Smith scored six points in a 9-3 run to tie it at 52-52.
UAlbany didn’t flinch.
“We told each other that, even when things weren’t going our way, we had to stick together and stay calm,” Henry said. “We’ve done a great job of that all year long, and it carried over into this game.”
Abrahamson-Henderson said the Great Danes will be calmer when they make their second NCAA appearance, having experienced it last year.
The women’s selection show is on Monday, and Abrahamson-Henderson crossed her fingers when asked about UAlbany’s potential seed.
“We got a 14 last year, and we’re way better this year,” she said. “Right now, the bracketology predicts us as a 15 seed. I’ll be shocked. I just hope somebody out there’s fighting for us. Maybe they’ll recognize that 19-0 and how many games we’ve won in a row. We’ll see. We’ll play anybody.”
Roth 1-4 1-2 3, Smith 8-20 2-2 18, Elliott 2-4 0-0 6, Hall 0-3 2-2 2, Bepko 1-3 3-3 6, Clark 0-2 0-0 0, Bultron 3-6 0-0 7, Englert 1-5 0-2 3, Doherty 2-5 1-2 5, Moore 1-2 0-0 2. Totals: 19-54 9-13 52.
Forster 4-8 2-2 10, Keya. Williams 0-1 1-2 1, Royals 1-4 3-4 5, Henry 2-9 1-2 5, Lowrie 3-6 4-4 12, Rosario 0-0 0-0 0, Richards 5-7 2-4 12, Craig 8-17 0-1 16. Totals: 23-52 13-19 61.
Halftime: Hartford 26, UAlbany 25. Three-point goals: 5-12 Hartford (Elliott 2-3, Hall 0-1, Bepko 1-2, Bultron 1-4, Englert 1-2); UAlbany 2-7 (Henry 0-3, Lowrie 2-4). Rebounds: Hartford 31 (Doherty 6); UAlbany 38 (Richards, Craig 7). Assists: Hartford 13 (Roth, Smith, Bepko, Bultron 2); UAlbany 14 (Henry 6). Total fouls fouls — Hartford 16, UAlbany 14. Fouled out — Forster. A — 2.568.