There’s an eerie feeling of deja vu as the defending champion University at Albany basketball team wonders if history will repeat itself in this weekend’s America East Conference men’s basketball tournament.
The fourth-seeded Great Danes (9-7 America East Conference, 15-14 overall), who play UMBC in the opening round today at 2:30 p.m. at SEFCU Arena, became the first fourth-seeded team to win the America East crown a year ago in the same setting as tournament hosts. The Great Danes even ended the regular season in a similar fashion last season, losing a tight game at Stony Brook.
“We are in a similar position as we were last year, but we are a different team,” said sophomore guard Peter Hooley, the Great Danes’ leading scorer (14.8 points per game) and one of four Australians on the roster. “We’re definitely more comfortable at home. We’ve learned a lot from our last two games, and we are confident. I think the key for us will be to finish off our possessions. We’ve been in a lot of close games this year, and we didn’t always finish off our possessions at the end.”
Junior forward Sam Rowley, another Australian who finally appears healthy after battling wrist and ankle injuries, believes the Great Danes have several championship ingredients.
“We’ve got about six different guys who can lead us in scoring,” said Rowley, a rugged 6-foot-6, 230-pound former rugby player who is second on the team in scoring (11.3 ppg) and first in rebounding (6.8 rpg). “We’ve proven we can win at home. We have momentum, we have the home-court edge, and we’re playing pretty well right now. The thing is that you have to want to win more than anything at this stage of the season, and I believe that’s the case with all of us right now.”
UAlbany head coach Will Brown, who has guided the Great Danes to three America East Conference championships in his previous 12 seasons with the program, feels the Great Danes are battle-tested and prepared to pull off a few upsets if they can get past a pesky UMBC squad.
“One of the great things about March Madness is that there are plenty of upsets and Cinderella runs,” Brown said. “But you must get past the first game before you start worrying about winning the tournament. We didn’t play well in either game against UMBC this year. We committed 38 turnovers in the two games. We need to get a shot every time down the floor.”
Brown’s Danes were 7-1 at home in conference play, but he said the home-court edge at tournament time could be a double-edged sword.
“You can put too much pressure on yourself to perform, because you think you are supposed to win being at home,” Brown said. “We must execute much better against UMBC. They are athletic, quick and they play hard. I think we will play well, but we need to relax and take a deep breath. I think everybody will put their best foot forward.”
UAlbany beat UMBC at home in double overtime (73-72), but lost a nail-biter in Baltimore, 71-69. In the game in Baltimore, both Rowley and Hooley went down with injuries.
“We really don’t want to think too much about last year, but we know we can do it,” said senior swingman Gary Johnson, who is one of four double-digit scorers on the Danes’ roster at 11.1 ppg. “We must execute. We really want to beat them badly, because we let one slip away down there. They are a tough team to play, though, because they’ve got one of the best freshman point guards I’ve seen in Rodney Elliott.
“It’s the little things that matter in these kinds of games. We’re going to play with a chip on our shoulder, because all year long we’ve had a target on our backs as the defending champions.”
The semifinals will be Sunday, and the championship game will be played at the highest remaining seed at 11:30 a.m. on March 15.