University at Albany needed to excel in a pair of P’s to beat upset-minded Hartford in Sunday’s America East Conference women’s tournament semifinal.
A glance at the final boxscore showed that the Great Danes once again dominated the points-in-the-paint category, 42-12, but even more important was something that didn’t show up in the final statistics.
“The word is poise,” said UAlbany head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, whose top-seeded Great Danes gradually pulled away from the fifth-seeded Hawks, 65-51, to advance to their third straight tournament championship game today at SEFCU Arena at 4 p.m. against Stony Brook. The second-seeded Seawolves, who snapped the Danes’ 38-game conference winning streak in the regular-season finale, beat New Hampshire, 79-59, in the other semi.
Megan Craig, a 6-foot-9 junior center, poured in 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting from the floor. She added six rebounds and two blocked shots to lift the two-time defending champion Great Danes to their 27th win in 31 games.
Sophomore forward Shereesha Richards, the AE Player of the Year, tacked on 19 points and seven rebounds.
After Hartford grabbed a 17-15 advantage on Amber Bepko’s second consecutive three-pointer with 7:54 to go, the Great Danes broke free with a 15-0 run and grabbed a 30-20 halftime advantage.
The Hawks (13-18) fell behind by as mant as 13 several times before once again using the three-point shot to get back into the game. Alyssa Englert’s trey with 6:35 to go sliced Hartford’s deficit to 50-42, but the Danes pulled away once again, with Richards scoring seven points in the final five minutes.
“Hartford is a great three-point shooting team. We made some adjustments at halftime,” said Abrahamson-Henderson. “We adjusted, and we had really good poise both on offense and defense.”
UAlbany’s 1-2 inside punch of Craig and Richards has been the Danes’ anchor all season, and many teams have tried to neutralize their inside game with exotic defenses.
“Obviously, you’ve seen people double-team me, triple-team me and quadruple-team me, so they find it very hard to guard me. Being 6-9 is a rarity, but I love it. They do whatever they can do to try and guard me and try to stop me, but obviously for Hartford, it didn’t work. It’s hard for them to defend me,” said Craig.
“Megan and I are the players other teams are always concentrating on. If they try to play us one-on-one, it’s very difficult for them, so they usually try to double-team us,” said Richards. “We know if one of us is covered, the other is open. It’s a lose-lose situation for them.”
Junior guard Sarah Royals contributed 11 points, eight assists and three steals, while senior guard Tammy Phillip registered a team-high 10 rebounds for the Great Danes.
Bepko finished with 21 points for the Hawks.
Abrahamson-Henderson and her players said they are excited to be in the championship game again.
“Being in the conference championship game is something we have looked forward to all preseason,” said Craig. “I am excited about [today] and to try to get that three-peat.”
Hartford head coach Jen Rizzotti, whose Hawks launched a tournament semifinal record 29 three-point attempts, said the Danes will be hard to beat today.
“They will be a tough out,” she said. “It’s not impossible to beat them, but what they do, they do well.
“In my 15 years of coaching, I’ve never seen anyone like Megan Craig. When Megan is on the floor, it changes everything you do. This year, they built their whole system around her on both ends.”
Reaves 2-4 1-2 5, Mayza 0-6 0-0 0, Lumb 1-10 4-4 6, Englert 2-6 0-0 6, Bepko 7-13 2-2 21, Hall 1-3 0-0 2, Gilber 2-2 0-0 4, Bultron 2-5 0-0 5, Moore 1-4 0-0 2. Totals: 18-53 7-8 51.
Phillip 1-5 0-0 2, Richards 7-11 5-6 19, Craig 10-15 3-6 23, Rosario 2-4 0-0 6, Royals 3-13 4-4 11, Coughlin 0-1 0-0 0, Tate 2-2 0-0 4, Saunders 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 25-52 12-16 65.
Halftime: UAlbany, 30-20. Three-point goals: Hartford 8-29 (Mayza 0-5, Lumb 0-7, Englert 2-3, Bepko 5-11, Bulton 1-3), UAlbany 3-8 (Rosario 2-3, Royals 1-4, Coughlin -1). Rebounds: Hartford 27 (Lumb 4, Bepko 4, Hall 4), UAlbany 38 (Phillip 10). Assists: Hartford 11 (Englert 5), UAlbany 18 (Royals 8). Total fouls: Hartford 14, UAlbany 13.