There seems to be a special switch the University at Albany men’s basketball team turns on when the Great Danes face Vermont in the America East Conference tournament.
Although the top-seeded Catamounts have beaten the Great Danes 11 consecutive times during regular-season play, including a 30-point triumph at Patrick Gym, defending champion UAlbany seems to have Vermont’s number come tournament time, winning five out of the last six AE tourney matchups.
This time, it was Peter Hooley early and the rest of the Great Danes later, as UAlbany held on for a 67-58 win in the tournament semifinals Sunday at SEFCU Arena.
The 17-14 Great Danes play at Stony Brook in the championship game Saturday at 11:30 a.m.
Hooley, coming off a career-high 30 points in the quarterfinals against UMBC, poured in 26 points, including 22 in the first half, when he outscored the entire Vermont team by three.
Senior Gary Johnson chipped in with 17 points, 13 rebounds and two steals. The Great Danes not only won the battle of the boards, 45-30, but they held the Cats to just 38.2 percent shooting from the floor. The Danes also dominated at the line, sinking 22 of 31, compared to seven of 13 for Vermont.
“We all believed — not just a few guys, but all the guys. It’s tough to beat a team three times,” said Hooley. “We worked hard for this all year. Now we have one more to go.”
“This season has been kind of up and down for us, but a few wins at the end of the season can make up for that,” said junior forward Sam Rowley,
Senior guard DJ Evans also played a major role in the victory with eight of his nine points in a key run midway through the second half to help hold off a Vermont surge.
The Great Danes rode 13 consecutive points by Hooley to a 13-2 lead, and they stretched their advantage to 16 at the half (35-19).
A 10-0 run by Vermont — sparked by Candon Rusin’s two straight three-pointers, sliced the Cats’ deficit to 42-33 with 11:53 remaining, but that’s when Evans hit a pair of baskets to help save the Danes’ momentum.
The Cats (22-10) didn’t give up, and they whittled the UAlbany advantage down to 58-50 with 1:57 left, but the Danes made seven of 10 free throws in the final minute to clinch the win.
“I’m proud of my guys,” said UAlbany head coach Will Brown. “I was dumb enough to want to play Vermont in this game. They [the Great Danes] executed our game plan to a tee. We talked about getting the job done defensively on the perimeter, hitting the boards and making them defend us. My team impressed me today.”
Brown admitted that he was holding his breath late in the game.
“You have to beat a team like Vermont. Their greatest strength is that they don’t beat themselves. We couldn’t take a possession off,” he said.
Vermont head coach John Becker called it a “tough game,” and pointed to some key numbers in the boxscore that explained the outcome.
“Thirteen free throws for us and 31 for them. Twenty-two minutes for our best player [Brian Voelkel] and five fouls. Fifty-eight points for a team that averages 70.
“Obviously, we are frustrated that our season ended this way,” added Becker, whose team gets an automatic berth into the NIT as the regular-season champion. “We worked hard to get the No. 1 seed, and we ran into an Albany team that played very well tonight.”
Voelkel 2-6 0-0 5, Rugg 4-10 2-3 13, O’Day 2-5 0-1 4, Carissimo 2-8 2-2 6, Rusin 3-9 0-0 9, Apfeld 5-10 3-5 13, Pierson 0-0 0-0 0, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Harold 0-0 0-0 0, Elbaum 1-1 0-1 2, Wills 0-1 0-0 0, Steidl 2-5 0-1 6. Totals: 21-55 7-13 58.
S. Rowley 3-9 1-1 7, Johnson 5-9 7-9 17, Puk 3-7 0-0 6, Evans 3-8 2-3 9, Hooley 6-14 10-15 26, M. Rowley 0-0 0-0 0, Devlin 0-1 2-2 2, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Egharevba 0-0 0-0 0, Wiegmann 0-0 0-0 0, Ennema 0-1 0-1 0. Totals: 20-49 22-31 67.
Halftime: UAlbany, 35-19. Three-point goals: Vermon 9-20 (Voelkel 1-1, Rugg 3-3, Carissimo 0-2, Rusin 3-7, Apfeld 0-3, Steidl 2-4); UAlbany 5-16 (Evans 1-5, Hooley 4-10, Ennema 0-1). Rebounds: Vermont 30 (Rugg 9), UAlbany 45 (Johnson 13). Assists: Vermont 8 (Carissimo 4), UAlbany 5 (Johnson, Puk, Evans, Hooley, Devlin 1 each). Total fouls: Vermont 24, UAlbany 17. Fouled out: Voelkel, Rusin.