Every dance has a slightly different beat and a few new steps.
That’s why the University at Albany’s third consecutive trip to the “Big Dance” will be just as special as the first two.
The Great Danes captured their third straight America East Conference women’s basketball tournament title with a dominating defensive effort that created 18 steals en route to a 70-46 victory over Stony Brook in Monday’s championship game at SEFCU Arena.
The top-seeded Great Danes (28-4) became just the fourth America East team to win three straight titles, and also broke last year’s program record for victories. They will find out their NCAA tournament opponent Monday night at 7.
Tournament MVP Shereesha Richards, the conference’s Player of the Year, poured in 26 points to go along with seven rebounds and four steals, while junior guard Sarah Royals scored 19 points and dished out eight assists to tie the tournament record for most assists (24). Senior Tammy Phillip registered 13 points, eight rebounds and five steals.
UAlbany’s win also avenged a loss to the Seawolves last week in the regular-season finale, when Stony Brook snapped the Great Danes’ conference-record 38-game winning streak.
“I’m so proud of them,” said UAlbany head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson. “They adjusted to our game plan, and got it down in just one day. It was all about defense. Everybody was talking about what happened on offense the last time we played Stony Brook, but the last time we played them, the problem was our defense. We played a great defensive game today.”
The Great Danes, who connected on 26 of 48 shots from the floor, held the Seawolves (24-8) to just 24.5 percent shooting.
Although UAlbany lost three of its top players to graduation in all-time leading scorer Ebone Henry, all-time leading rebounder Julie Forster and three-point specialist Lindsay Lowrie, three stalwarts from a year ago stepped into their shoes in Richards, 6-foot-9 junior center Megan Craig and Royals.
“I told Sarah, Shereesha and Megan that no matter what, they could go to recall,” said Abrahamson-Henderson, referring to that trio’s championship-game experience. “I told them that they would remember what to do. It’s like a feeling you get.
“Ebone Henry made it all happen for us last year, and I told them that all three of them had to do it for us this year.”
“It’s just a great feeling,” said Royals, who played 39 minutes and survived constant trapping defenses by the Seawolves. “All the hard work and sacrifices we made all year finally paid off. It just wasn’t us three. Everybody stepped up for us.”
“We’ve wanted this since last summer,” said Richards.”
Royals and Craig have been a part of three straight championship teams.
“This feels more personal to me than the first two,” said Royals. “Last year, it was Ebone and Julie who led us. This year, I had a different role. I think this makes a statement about what we can do.”
“We have experience on our side,” added Craig. “We had a lot of doubters as to whether we could win without Ebone and Julie.”
“We expected this,” said a confident Richards. “We were not going to leave here crying because we lost.”
With several UAlbany players in foul trouble in the first half, the Danes’ bench also played a key role in the win, as Imani Tate, Zakiya Saunders and Cassandra Edwards combined for an unexpected 47 minutes.
“Beating Stony Brook was a big focus point for us,” Royals said. “Stony Brook beat us a week ago and ended our perfect conference record. The whole team wanted revenge.”
Abrahamson-Henderson said every one of her teams has a motto, but she didn’t want to bring this year’s up until now.
“This year’s motto came from Sarah Royals, and it was: ‘Three-peat: earned not given,’ ” said the coach.
STONY BROOK (46)
Proctor 5-14 1-2 12, Snow 2-5 8-10 12, Ogunnorin 3-10 4-5 10, Harris 0-5 0-0 0, Goodman 3-12 0-2 6, Bayne-Walker 0-2 2-3 2, Hanlon 0-1 0-0 0, Costantino 0-4 4-4 4, Coiro 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 13-53 19-26 46.
Phillip 5-11 3-5 13, Richards 11-15 4-6 26, Craig 3-7 1-2 7, Rosario 0-1 1-2 1, Royals 5-5 9-16 19, Coughlin 0-0 0-0 0, Tate 1-4 0-0 2, Fequiere 0-1 0-0 0, Saunders 1-3 0-0 2, Edwards 0-1 0-0 0. Toatls: 26-48 18-31 70.
Halftime: UAlbany, 36-20. There-point goals: Stony Brook 1-15 (Proctor 1-4, Ogunnorin 0-2, Harris 0-2, Goodman 0-2, Hanlon 0-1, Costantino 0-4); UAlbany 0-0). Rebounds: Stony Brook 37 (Snow 8, Goodman 8); UAlbany 38 (Phillip 8). Assists: Strony Brook 8 (Snow 2, Goodman 2, Costantino 2), UAlbany 16 (Royals 8). Total fouls: Stony Brook 26, UAlbany 25. Fouled out: Snow, Harris, Craig.