A grin as wide as a basketball never left Lee McElroy’s face.
The University at Albany athletic director received a long standing ovation when he was introduced at Thursday’s “Celebration of Champions” ceremony to honor the men’s and women’s basketball teams at University Hall Atrium.
Both UAlbany programs won their respective America East Conference tournament champ-ionships, and each gained a berth in the NCAA tournament, a rare achievement for a mid-major basketball school. Along with the talented players on each team, head men’s coach Will Brown and head women’s coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson basked in the endless rounds of applause.
But as the man who hired both successful coaches, McElroy des-erves much of the credit for their success. And the several hundred alumni, university officials and fans in attendance at the special cer-emony let him know time after time how much they appreciate him.
“This means so much because each of these teams combined academic success with athletic success,” said McElroy. “Except for coach [Bob] Ford, Chris Cannata [softball coach] and a few others, I’ve hired most of the coaches here over the last few years. I hired good people who put an emphasis on the classroom as well as the athletic fields.
“The key to having a great athletic program is having everybody buy into what you’re doing every day. You can’t buy into it on a part-time basis. I have an open-door policy here for the coaches, the other administrators and the stud-ents. I think consistency is the key. There are 132 colleges that made the NCAA tournament for both the men and the women, and only 20 percent of those had both men’s and women’s programs competing at the same time. That says something about our program.”
McElroy said the Great Danes have now won 63 America East Conference championships, and the school is currently leading the conference’s Commissioner’s Cup, which recognizes the school with the best overall athletic program based on a point system.
“We are winning the UAlbany way, and that means we’re doing it with strong academics and a commitment to the community, as well as to athletics,” McElroy said.
McElroy noted that both Brown and Abrahamson-Henderson have received contract extensions giving them the maximum five-year contracts allowed for SUNY coaches.
“We just gave Katie another one-year extension, and Will agreed to a four-year extension on his contract to give him a five-year contract,” as well,” McElroy said. “As far as Will is concerned, there are just a few details to work out, but he’s already agreed to the four-year extension.”
Brown didn’t comment on his contract negotiations, but Abra-hamson-Henderson said she is very happy with her situation.
“I’m a happy person overall, and I’m usually happy when my family is happy,” she said. “If I wasn’t doing a good job, I wouldn’t have the contract I have.”
The UAlbany men won their third conference tournament this year and finished with a 23-11 record. The Great Danes become the lowest seed (fourth) ever to win the tournament title. After winning the first two rounds at SEFCU Arena, including a big upset over top-seeded Stony Brook in the semifinals, the Danes had to beat Vermont at Patrick Gym in Burlington, Vt., in the championship game.
“Our No. 1 goal all year was to win the America East regular-season title,” said Brown. “But we had a rough stretch of three or four games in the middle of the season, and our team needed a lift. We got together 26 days before the America East Conference tourn-ament and decided to value every day with a focus of getting better every day.”
Brown said senior leadership, including Mike Black, Jacob Iati, Blake Metcalf and Jayson Guerrier, was critical to his team’s success.
“Our four seniors were terrific,” he said. “Every day, Jacob Iati said just one word in practice, ‘champ-ionship.’ He’s not the tallest guy, he’s not the strongest guy and he’s not the most athletic guy, but when he talks, the guys listen. This team played for the name in front of the jersey, not on the back of the jersey. This was a team.”
Black finished his career among the top five all-time scorers and was a first-team All-America East Conference. Iati was one of the program’s all-time leaders in three-point proficiency.
The Danes gave second-seeded Duke a scare before losing by 12 points in the NCAA tournament at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
“This was a great way of showing their support for our two basketball programs,” said Brown of the
special ceremony. “I think pres-ident [Robert] Jones was trying to send a message by holding the event here. He was saying how much he appreciates the athletic program and how important it is to the university.”
Meanwhile, the UAlbany women, spearheaded by seniors Ebone Henry, Julie Forster, Lindsey Lowrie and Keyanna Williams, won their second straight conference tournament and earned an NCAA tourney berth for the second time in program history. The Danes went unbeaten in conference play for the first time (16-0) and set a team record for wins during a 27-4 campaign. They nearly upset third-seeded North Carolina before bowing, 59-54, in the NCAA tournament at Newark, Del.
“When I came here, my goal was to change the culture,” said Abrahamson-Henderson. “We had three main points of emph-asis. We wanted to empower these young women. We wanted to educate them, and we wanted to teach them to stand up for themselves, believe in themselves, and allow themselves to fly. They can really fly now.”
Henry, the America East Conf-erence Co-Player of the Year and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, finished her career as the program’s all-time leading scorer. Forster concluded her career as the team’s all-time leading rebounder and was also a 1,000-point scorer. Lowrie is among the team’s career leaders in three-point baskets.
“You have a great team only if your seniors buy into what you’re doing 100 percent,” Abrahamson-Henderson said.