Stingy defenses and outstanding coaches are the common threads when 14th-seeded University at Albany collides with third-seeded North Carolina in today’s NCAA women’s tournament game at the University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center.
This will be the first-ever meeting between these programs. Game time is 2:30 p.m., following the West Virginia-Delaware game at 12:15. It will be carried on ESPN2
The 27-3 Great Danes, making their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance under third-year head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, are third in the nation in scoring defense (49.0 points allowed) and fifth in field goal percentage defense (.332). They have won 19 straight games.
Furthermore, the Great Danes, who became the seventh team in America East Conference history to go unbeaten during the regular season (16-0), are seventh in rebounding margin (plus 10.4 per game) and 13th in steals (11.9 per game).
But the Tar Heels, ranked 13th by The Associated Press and 18th in the USA Today Coaches’ poll, are also extremely tough to score against, and the Atlantic Coast Conference powers play a much more challenging schedule. UNC (28-6) is second in the nation in steals (13.4) and 14th in blocked shots (5.4 per game).
Although both teams make you work hard for every basket, they go about defending their opponents in different ways.
“You have to utilize the talent you have,” said UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell, second on the all-time list for women’s coaching victories behind the retired Pat Summit, with a career record of 907-319. “We love to get after people. We probably used 12 to 15 different defenses against Maryland. Sometimes, we confuse ourselves more than the other team. UAlbany is a very experienced team, with four seniors. They have intelligent players, and they are well coached. I’m not surprised at what their numbers are.”
“I know they are very athletic, and that they like to play zone,” said North Carolina senior Krista Gross. “Their defensive stats are good. But we must do what we do.”
Abrahamson-Henderson is well aware of how good the Tar Teels are.
“Most importantly, they are athletic,” she said. “Their style of play is something we haven’t seen in our conference. They like to pressure full-court, but that’s what we do. We need to box them out, and we need to take a few charges, because North Carolina likes to drive hard with their heads down. The big thing for us is that we have four seniors who don’t want their season to end. It’s different this year than last year, because we have four seniors who aren’t in awe of the other team.”
UAlbany’s leaders are both defensive-minded in senior Ebone Henry, this year’s America East Conference Co-Player of the Year and the conference’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year, along with all-time leading rebounder Julie Forster.
The Tar Heels counter with shot-blocking ace Waltiea Rolle (248 career rejections) and fellow senior Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who paces the Tar Heels in scoring (14.8 ppg.), assists (4.4 ppg) and steals (2.6 per game).
Henry is not only UAlbany’s all-time leading scorer, with 1,613 points, but she is also second in career steals (310) and fourth in rebounds (755), despite playing in the backcourt.
Forster, originally a walk-on who led the conference in rebounding her first three seasons, is the Great Danes’ all-time leader in that category, with 1,136. The first-team all-conference selection is also sixth on the scoring chart, with 1,103 points, and sixth in steals (235). Freshman Shereesha Richards helps out in both the rebounding and steals department, while 6-foot-8 sophomore center Megan Craig is another strong rebounder and an intimidating defender.
“We have another year of experience under our belt,” said senior Lindsey Lowrie, who is eighth nationally in three-point shooting accuracy (42 percent). “And we’re on a neutral court this year.”
North Carolina has a much stronger pedigree than UAlbany, but Hatchell, a Hall of Fame nominee, has known Abrahamson-Henderson for a long time. In fact, she recruited her.
“I remember watching her play,” said Hatchell. “She was a very big girl, and very skilled. She was very mobile for her size, and she had a great touch. We’ve stayed in touch over the years. She’s done an outstanding job, and I’m not surprised by the success she’s had.”
“I think Julie and Shereesha will be key for us. Julie is a huge mismatch for them,” said Abrahamson-Henderson. “Shereesha Richards is fearless. She doesn’t understand the situation. She just does what we tell her to do.”
Forster said UAlbany’s senior leadership, which also includes starting center Keyana Williams, knows what to expect.
“We had certain goals we wanted to accomplish, and we’ve told the underclassmen what they are. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”
North Carolina won the 1994 national title. UNC is 16-4 all-time in NCAA first-round games and 41-22 in 23 overall tournament appearances.