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A season-defining game for UAlbany

A season-defining game for UAlbany

A season-defining game for UAlbany
UAlbany coach Will Brown said he had never seen anything like Sunday's loss.
Photographer: Mark McGuire/Executive Sports Editor

ALBANY — There are losses, there are bad losses, then there are soul-sucking losses that can irreparably wound a team’s psyche and derail a season, even in its relative infancy.

That last one is just the kind of loss the University at Albany men’s basketball team suffered Sunday.

“It was just a complete meltdown,” coach Will Brown said Tuesday. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve never seen
anything like that.”

Normally, a two-point early January loss at Stony Brook qualifies as just a conference loss, no more, no less. Even if it comes off a road loss at UMass-Lowell, it’s not defining. A team can rebound from an 0-2 conference start.

But when you consider the Great Danes led Stony Brook 70-51 Sunday with 5:55 to play, and went on to lose 72-70 — to save you the math, that’s a 21-0 game-closing run — you are talking about the kind of defeat that can cripple a team.

It’s a game that will define the 2016-17 Danes, for ill — or perhaps good.

Turnovers, foul after foul — and made free throw after free throw by Stony Brook — steamrolled the Danes into submission. UAlbany played 34 minutes of really good basketball — and nearly six minutes of the most wretched hoops in program history.

“It was one of the crazier games I’ve been a part of,” forward Greig Stire said. “Once they started pressing us, we started to fall apart. It was like we couldn’t catch or pass the ball.”

David Nichols, who fouled out, said the mostly silent bus ride back from Long Island “felt like forever. Everyone was in shock.”

Yes, that happened. The question: What will happen next? We will find out as soon as tonight at SEFCU Arena, when the Great Danes (9-8, 0-2 America East) face New Hampshire (9-6, 0-1).

Can you say a game in the second week in January is must-win, especially in a one-bid conference where winning the postseason tournament is the only ticket to the NCAAs?

Normally, no. But this is not a normal situation, or a normal UAlbany team. The Great Danes must show tonight — to themselves, more than coaches, fans, media or anyone else — that they have resiliency. Otherwise a season of promise could spiral out of control.

These Great Danes are talented, but flawed — perhaps fatally so. Their absence of point guard depth was exposed Sunday after Nichols fouled out — and it could be argued Nichols is more of a two-guard scorer trapped in a point’s body. (Think Allen Iverson.).

The perimeter defense has been a lament of Brown all season. At times the offense stagnates into a series of trivial passing around the perimeter.

The return of Jaraan Lands, out with injury since November, could have addressed front-court depth (and allow Dallas Ennema, the team’s one reliable 3-point shooter, to return to small forward), but he is ailing again, too and not expected to play tonight. Outside of Joe Cremo and Nichols, scoring is done by a revolving committee.

The Danes have also shown a glaring inability to close out games that should have been won (home to Holy Cross, at Yale and Stony Brook).

“We definitely have to find that killer instinct,” Nichols said. “We have to learn how to put teams away.”

Most of all, there is no vocal leader on this team, no one who has emerged as the person to lift up — or hold his fellow Danes accountable. Cremo will be that guy eventually, and maybe Nichols, but it’s a hard job for a sophomore. Brown has said it repeatedly, but it’s not an excuse to be dismissed: UAlbany lost three all-conference players, leaders all, to graduation. That is going to create a huge void in any locker room.

For ALL that, there is talent here, starting with Cremo, whose biggest flaw is he is too hard on himself. Nichols, as he matures with playing time and just time, has the skills to evolve into a big-time dual pass/score threat on the offensive end. The big man duo of  Stire and Mike Rowley are what they are: A rock-steady combo that will give you a combined 15-17 points and a like number of rebounds every outing.

But if this team is to do anything in the America East, it will have to get its collective head’s right.
There are a couple of ways the game tonight can go against the Wildcats, a team that likes to grind it out in ways similar to past UAlbany teams.

The Great Danes can be tentative, especially down the stretch, fearing a repeat of Sunday — assuring a lot.
UAlbany can be sullen and lifeless from the start, and get its doors blown off.

Or the Danes can play with controlled anger — at themselves, at the game, doesn’t matter — and use that passion as fuel, repurposing a horrific loss as a springboard to turning things around.

No, that was not just one loss. It will be significant one way or another, playing a role in how UAlbany finishes its season.

“One way or another,” Brown said in agreement.

And if Sunday showed UAlbany anything, it’s how you finish is what matters.

Reach Executive Sports Editor Mark McGuire at 395-3105, mmcguire@dailygazette.net or @MJMcGuire on Twitter.

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