The University at Albany literally came within a couple of bounces, and maybe a foot, from pulling off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA women’s basketball tournament history.
The 14th-seeded Great Danes led 13th-ranked, third-seeded North Carolina for most of the second half, but the Tar Heels took advantage of an unforced turnover and several loose-ball rebounds en route to a 59-54 comeback victory in an opening-round game Sunday at the University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center.
The 29-6 Tar Heels face the host Delaware Blue Hens in a second-round game Tuesday night. UAlbany, the America East Conference regular-season and tournament champion making its second consecutive NCAA appearance, closed out its best-ever season at 27-4.
No 14th seed had ever beaten a three-seed in tournament history, but the Great Danes appeared headed in that direction when they took a 39-32 lead with 16:14 to go. The Danes still looked golden when senior Ebone Henry, the school’s all-time scoring leader and the America East Conference’s Co-Player of the Year, converted a thee-point play to put her team ahead, 48-44, with 9:46 left.
Senior Lindsey Lowrie then drew an offensive foul from UNC’s leading scorer, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, but the Danes turned the ball over, and Ruffin-Pratt went on a nine-point tear to push the Tar Teels in front, 53-50, with 4:53 remaining.
The Danes refused to go away. Megan Craig, a 6-foot-8 sophomore center, converted a pair of offensive rebounds into baskets to cut the UAlbany deficit to 56-54 with just 1:25 on the clock. After Megan Buckland misfired on a three-pointer, the Danes called a timeout with 52.7 seconds remaining. The UAlbany fans in the crowd, joined by hundreds of Delaware fans, went wild, hoping for the upset.
But UAlbany’s good fortune was short-lived. Henry accidentally stepped out of bounds trying to avoid a UNC press with 46.5 seconds left. Ruffin-Pratt then put up a shot that caromed off the rim, but 6-6 Waltiera Rolle snatched the rebound and was immediately fouled by Julie Forster. Rolle made the first foul shot, but missed the second, giving the Danes some life. But Rolle again grabbed the rebound and passed it to Ruffin-Pratt, who was fouled with 13 seconds to go.
The Danes were still behind by just one possession, at 57-54, and when Ruffin-Pratt misfired on both her free throws, they had another chance. But Ruffin-Pratt grabbed the loose-ball rebound, was fouled again, and this time sank both foul shots to clinch the win. Ruffin-Pratt finished with a game-high 30 points, five assists and five steals in a game in which she refused to lose.
UNC definitely dodged a bullet.
UAlbany head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson was asked if her team should have won.
“Yes. Absolutely. And I think the North Carolina coach thinks that, too,” she said. “I think we deserved to win. They [the Danes] represented the purple family and did a really good job. Their heads need to be up.”
The third-year UAlbany head coach and two-time America East Conference Coach of the Year was thrilled with her team’s performance. And she wasn’t surprised.
“That was pretty amazing, huh? We came here to win. There is no way I would let these women be scared of anything. Their No. 44 [Ruffin-Pratt] just carried them, all by herself.”
The Great Danes recovered from an early 6-0 deficit to eventually surge ahead, 23-16, with four minutes left in the half. They took a 28-23 halftime lead that should have been more if not for four missed free throws in the final four minutes.
Forster, the team’s all-time leading rebounder, had 10 caroms in the first half alone, and finished with 13.
“We missed some wide-open shots at the end, and we gave up a couple of offensive rebounds on those free-throw attempts,” said Abrahamson-Henderson.
“But I told our players that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but rather the size of the fight in the dog. Everybody is going to lose at the end. It’s just a matter of time. They played their hearts and souls out.”
Craig finished with 12 points and six rebounds, while both Henry and Lowrie added 11 points for the Great Danes, who committed 22 turnovers and shot just 28 percent from the floor. But UAlbany forced UNC into just 34.5 percent shooting and 20 turnovers of their own.
“Everyone thought we were going to lose because they are an ACC school. At the end of the day, they are just a basketball team from North Carolina,” said Henry.
Abrahamson-Henderson said she will miss her outstanding senior class, including Henry, Forster, Lowrie and Keyana Williams.
“We when we look back at this, we will not look back on this loss. They [the Albany seniors] are the ones that changed this program. These young women made the difference,” said Abrahamson-Henderson.
“It’s kind of amazing that we almost beat them, but we didn’t do it, and that’s what counts,” said Lowrie. “We really believed that we could win, so we aren’t happy that we made it close. It’s unfortunate that we got a couple of bad bounces at the end, but we kept on fighting all the way.”
“It’s a tough way to lose, but I think we did a good job of leaving it all out there on the court,” said Foster.
Even UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell, second on the all-time women’s coaching victory list with 908, was impressed by the Great Danes.
“Well, we survived. I don’t take anything away from Albany. They are a very good team. She’s [Abrahamson-Henderson] skilled and prepared, and she does a lot of good things over there. She was a great player and a great coach.”
Foster 2-10 2-2 6, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Royals 1-4 3-6 5, Henry 3-15 3-3 11, Lowrie 3-13 2-2 11, Rosario 0-3 0-0 0, Richards 2-6 5-9 9 Craig 6-10 0-0 12. Totals: 17-61 15-22 54.
NORTH CAROLNA (59)
Gross 2-5 1-1 5, McDaniel 1-2 1-1 3, Ruffin-Pratt 10-24 7-11 30, Rolle 4-11 6-8 14, Rountree 2-7 0-0 5, Buckland 0-4 1-2 1, Butts 0-2 1-3 1, Bryant 0-0 0-0 0, Johnson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 19-55 17-26 59.
Halftime: UAlbany, 28-23. Three-point goals: UAlbany 5-26 (Royals 0-2, Henry 2-10, Lowrie 3-12, Rosario 0-2); UNC 4-17 (Gross 0-1, McDaniel 0-1, Ruffin-Pratt 3-5, Rountree 1-5 Buckland 0-4, Butts 0-1). Rebounds: UAlbany 44 (Forster 13), UNC 43 (Rolle 14). Assists: UAlbany 14 (Henry 5), UNC 8 (Ruffin-Pratt 5). Personal fouls: UAlbany 21, UNC 22. Technical fouls: Ruffin-Pratt. Officials: Eric Brewton, Kathleen Lynch, Angela Lewis, Shannon Feck. Attendance: 4,532 (sellout).