The seeding may be the same for the University at Albany women’s basketball team, but this dance at least will be on a neutral court.
The Great Danes’ initial NCAA tournament appearance was last year against third-seeded Texas A&M, the defending national champion, in Texas. This time,
14th-seeded UAlbany (27-3) takes on No. 3 North Carolina (28-6) Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Newark, Del., home of the Delaware Blue Hens.
“At least I finally get to play an NCAA tournament game on a neutral court,” said UAlbany head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, the two-time America East Conference Coach of the Year. “I’ve had first-round NCAA games at Texas Tech, Notre Dame and Purdue, all on the other team’s home court. I’m happy not playing another powerhouse on their own home court.”
Abrahamson-Henderson thought her sizzling team, winner of 19 straight and unbeaten in conference play, might get a little better seeding this year after proving last year’s performance was no fluke. The Great Danes played Texas A&M tough in the first half before the Aggies pulled away late to win.
“Maybe being the 14th seed is not exactly what I thought we’d get, but it’s OK, because we like to be the underdog anyway,” she said. “There were a lot of upsets in the tournament, and I’m sure they had to move some of the teams around.”
The third-year UAlbany head coach has been to the NCAAs many times as a player and as a coach, but she said it never gets old.
“It never gets less exciting. That’s why you play college athletics,” she said. “These are the moments you are always waiting for.”
Although the Great Danes leaped into the air when their pairing was announced, they weren’t as frantic as they were a year ago. Their experience was the difference.
“I’m very excited,” said senior guard Ebone Henry, the America East Conference co-player of the year and UAlbany’s all-time leading scorer. “I don’t really care what seed we are or where we’re going. I think we are playing very well right now, and everyone is stepping up. It will be hard to guard us.
“Last year helped us so much. We’re not as nervous this year, and we played well against Texas A&M. I think last year we were just glad to be in the tournament, and we went there almost like a vacation. This year, we’re going there to win.”
Senior forward Julie Forster agreed that the seasoned Great Danes will be more serious this time.
“Last year, I was in shock when I saw our team’s name. I didn’t even know where we were playing or what our seeding was,” she said. “This year is different. I took time to notice when and where we were playing.
“This year it’s definitely much less nerve-wracking. We are a much more confident team. North Carolina is maybe not quite as familiar as Texas A&M was, but we know they are an extremely good team, or they wouldn’t be a third seed.
“The other thing that is very exciting for us is that Delaware is so much closer. It’s nice because our families and friends can drive to the game to watch us. It works out so much better. I’ve heard it’s only 40 minutes from Philadelphia, so maybe some of the fans watching the men can come over to see us play.”
North Carolina is paced by Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (14.9 points per game), Xylina McDaniel (12.2 ppg) and Waltiea Rolle (11.5 ppg).
The Tar Heels, who lost in the ACC tournament championship game to Duke, are coached by Hall of Famer Sylvia Hatchell, who has more than 800 career victories.
“We are playing against another coaching legend,” said Abrahamson-Henderson. “The coaches at this level are all great. It should be a lot of fun. Coach Hatchell recruited me. I know they have an extremely athletic team, and they like to attack the rim. They probably have five All-Americans on their roster. They are extremely fast, and they like to run, run, run. We will have to play zone against them.”
Abrahamson-Henderson said her senior-led team is ready for the challenge.
“We are playing so much better now than the last time we lost against Sam Houston State. We all know our roles,” she said. “I know Ebone will show up for this game. Our team is pumped up and ready to go.”