University at Albany finished one of the best seasons in program history with a gritty, memorable performance against one of the top teams in the country.
Earning plenty of respect from second-seeded Duke in their Midwest Regional opener, the Great Danes made several runs but could never get over the hump against the powerful Blue Devils, who held on for a 73-61 NCAA tournament victory Friday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center.
Senior guard Seth Curry poured in 26 points, including a key layup with 3:59 remaining that boosted the Duke advantage to 10 after the Great Danes had whittled it down to eight on a pair of free throws by Jacob Iati.
The Great Danes thought they had made a big defensive stop, but Mason Plumlee tipped the loose ball to Curry, who drove the lane for an uncontested layup.
UAlbany never got closer, but the Danes, undersized at every position, proved they were for real.
“I’m very proud of my guys. We really competed,” said UAlbany head coach Will Brown, whose team won a school-record 24 games and finished 24-11 en route to their third NCAA tournament appearance. “We believed all week long that we were going to win this game, and we prepared the way we always prepare. We played with great toughness, great resiliency, just like we did all year long.”
Iati, a fifth-year senior playing in his last collegiate game, made it special with 15 points, six assists, six rebounds and three steals.
“You know, they’re Duke for a reason,” said Iati. “They’re good for a reason. They have great players all around you. So that experience is tough. They play in big games all season long, and every game is like that for them for their whole careers. It’s just another day in the park.
“But I thought we battled. We played to win the game. We didn’t think we were just coming here to play Duke and go home. We were trying to win the game. We thought we really could, and we believed in ourselves. I think we did a pretty good job of fighting until the end.”
Plumlee, a 6-foot-11 senior center, added 23 points and eight rebounds for the 28-5 Blue Devils, who next face Creighton on Sunday. Several of his baskets were sky hooks, difficult to stop.
“I mean, look at the two teams,” said Brown. “They’re physically, athletically bigger than us at every single position. Our motto really has been to fight, scrape and claw. The problem is, if you’re playing another low-major or mid-major Division I program, you can probably get away with getting behind and coming back, getting behind and coming back. When you play an elite program, a team that’s going to compete for a national title this year, you can’t afford to get behind by 12, 13 and 14 points.”
Brown said the comparison between the two teams was much like comparing the scrappy, 5-10 Iati vs. the extremely gifted Plumlee.
“You know, Jacob Iati is going to work for J.P. Morgan next year, and Mason Plumlee is going to the NBA, and it’s like that at almost every position,” he said.
Red-shirt freshman Peter Hooley contributed 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists, while sophomore forward Sam Rowley chipped in with 10 points. Mike Black, also playing in his final game, registered 10 points.
“Duke is a one of the top teams in the country for a reason,” said Black, a first-team All-America East Conference selection and the Reggie Lewis Outstanding Player in the tournament championship game. “We battled, we had a loose ball at the end with a couple of minutes left. If we got it, it could have changed the game around, but we didn’t, and that’s a credit to Duke. They made the hustle play, and just credit to them.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in Division I basketball with 955 career victories, said the Blue Devils had their hands full with a very resilient and tough Albany team.
“It was a good, tough win for us,” he said. “Albany played like a team that just won a conference title and won 24 games. Their veteran guards are terrific, and their big guys played tough. They also hit some big threes that kept them in the game. We beat a team that was playing very well.”
Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils are used to being a marked team with a target on their back.
“Every game we play is a huge game,” he said. “We almost always get an opponent’s best shot. We’ve been fighting that for 25 years. Teams don’t quit against us, and Albany didn’t quit. Our guys have been in this situation every game we play.
“Albany came in very prepared to play this basketball game.”
Ryan Kelly was held to just eight points and six rebounds, while point guard Quinn Cook chipped in with 11 assists for the Blue Devils.
All of the Great Danes agreed that Duke didn’t surprise them with its talent or its game plan.
“I think we played as hard as we could,” said Iati, who instead of accepting a position as a graduate assistant this year returned to the team for his final year of eligibility. “I think we left it all on the floor. Personally, I know I played as hard as I possibly could.”
“We didn’t back down to Duke, even though the jerseys said Duke,” said Black, who finished his career among the Great Danes’ all-time leaders in scoring and assists.
“We pressured them, got some loose balls and made tough shots. I feel like we made them work for everything they got.”
“You know what I was most impressed with?” Brown asked the media contingent at the postgame press conference. “Did you hear the Duke crowd erupt on that loose ball at the end, the one that if we would have had I thought we’d be off to the races to cut it to five? They were worried. It sounded like Burlington all over again, and we were up in Vermont in the tournament championship game.”
Rowley 3-9 4-4 10, Johnson 0-2 0-2 0, Puk 1-7 0-0 2, Iati 4-9 4-4 15, Black 3-11 2-2 10, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Evans 0-0 0-0 0, Devlin 4-5 0-0 9, Hooley 3-7 4-4 13, Metcalf 1-2 0-0 2, Wiegmann 0-0 0-0 0, Page 0-0 0-0 0, Guerrier 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 19-52 14-16 61.
Plumlee 9-11 5-7 23, Kelly 3-8 2-2 8, Cook 2-8 0-0 4, Sulaimon 1-2 4-6 7, Curry 10-14 4-6 26, Thornton 2-2 0-0 5, Murphy 0-0 0-0 0, Hairston 0-1 0-0 0, Jefferson 0-0 0-0 0, Plumlee 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 27-46 15-21 73.
Halftime: Duke, 35-26. Three-point goals: UAlbany 9-15 (Iati 3-4, Black 2-4, Devlin
1-1, Hooley 3-6); Duke 4-11 (Kelly 0-3, Sulaimon 1-2, Cook 0-3, Curry 2-2, Thornton 1-1). Rebounds: UAlbany 26 (Hooley 9), Duke 28 (Plumlee 8). Assists: UAlbany 14 (Iati 6), Duke 17 (Cook 11). Personal fouls: UAlbany 19, Duke 18. Fouled out: Devlvin Officials: Greg Nixon, Larry Spaulding, Lee Cassell.