LOUDONVILLE — She knew what some people thought about her desire for the Siena women’s basketball program to start playing UAlbany again.
Some, Siena head coach Ali Jaques said, voiced their confusion directly to her.
“You’re crazy. Why are you doing that? Why are you putting yourself in that position?”
Jaques understood that way of thinking, but thought those wondering why the coach who had lost her first six games against UAlbany wanted to restart the series had missed the bigger point.
“Because it’s not about me and my stupid record,” Jaques said. “It’s about these guys having a great college experience, and that’s what our administration did today for our players.”
That same credit went to the UAlbany administration and UAlbany head coach Colleen Mullen, a point Jaques explicitly made minutes after her program scored a 52-46 win Saturday against the Great Danes at Siena’s Alumni Recreation Center in a game billed as the “Crosstown Showdown” after the teams’ “Albany Cup” series closed — temporarily, at least — following the 2017-18 season when the schools couldn’t agree on terms to continue the men’s portion of the rivalry.
The men’s programs still don’t have plans to play each other, but the women’s programs were able to rekindle their rivalry for this season after seemingly missing out on that opportunity last year because of the failed negotiations around a potential men’s game. The disagreement regarding playing the men’s game comes back to where it gets played, as UAlbany wants turns hosting the matchup at its SEFCU Arena and Siena wants the matchup played every year at its home arena in downtown Albany that has greater seating capacity.
So it was no small thing that Saturday’s game happened, and especially that it took place on Siena’s campus.
“First and foremost — and I mean this — I think we have to give a lot of credit to [UAlbany] and a lot of credit to Colleen, and their whole organization and program for having the courage to have this game, and for us and our administration being able to provide this for our community,” Jaques said after her program broke its overall eight-game losing streak against UAlbany. “I think that it would be easy [for UAlbany] to say, ‘No, we’re not coming to your home court,’ and ‘courage’ might be the wrong word and that could be misconstrued, but I think there’s a bigger picture here.
“And even with how much our team has been struggling as of late, I think this is a really important game for our community, and [it’s great] to see all those girls in the stands and to see families on a Saturday afternoon come out and witness a great basketball game. If it had gone either way, this was a great college basketball game, and I think it’s really, really important that everybody understands it took a lot for this game to happen, and we’re very grateful because . . . our student-athletes had an awesome experience today and that’s what college athletics is all about.”
Siena’s players got to hoist the rivalry’s trophy after the game, but the experience Jaques referenced went beyond a post-game celebration. While there were a number of open seats visible, the game featured an announced sold-out attendance of 2,148, and the sizable crowd that showed up was enthusiastically engaged with a back-and-forth rivalry matchup played with an intensity not always found in non-conference games played in early December of the college basketball season.
“The game is bigger than just playing Siena. It is for the community,” said Mullen, UAlbany’s second-year head coach who coached Saturday for the first time against the Saints. “It is for what you promise your student-athletes when you recruit them.”
Saturday’s first half featured more missed field goals (39) than total points (37), as UAlbany emerged from the hectic opening two quarters with a 19-18 advantage. Neither Siena (2-5) nor UAlbany (4-6) has played particularly well to this point in the season, but each squad delivered a second half worthy of a rivalry matchup. The teams combined to score one more point in the third quarter than they totaled in the first two, and UAlbany took a 40-35 lead into the fourth.
That final period featured three lead changes, and 94.2% of it was played as a one-possession game. Using a diamond-and-1 defense that saw Siena junior Rayshel Brown — who just became eligible for the Saints Wednesday after transferring into the program — blanket UAlbany junior star Kyara Frames at key moments, Siena held UAlbany without a point following a pair of Frames free throws that put UAlbany ahead 46-43 with 4:21 to go. From there, Siena scored the game’s final nine points, the last seven of which came from senior Sabrina Piper, who finished with a game-high 18 points.
“So proud of my teammates, and this just was a great team win,” Piper said.
Brown added 15 points for Siena, while junior Marilena Gerostergiou grabbed 15 rebounds. Senior Alexi Schecter had 14 points and nine rebounds for UAlbany, while Frames added 11 points.
Jaques said Siena only briefly practiced its zone-plus-one defensive look at Friday’s practice and that “we didn’t do that great at it” before working through it again during Saturday’s pre-game shootaround. In the fourth quarter, Jaques said she went to the defensive scheme because she needed something fresh to throw at Frames.
“To me, Frames is the heart and soul of the team,” Jaques said. “Their big [Schecter] is really talented, but to shut down Frames and not let the ball get there was our game plan coming in, and I just give [Brown] so much credit and our players [credit] for taking a chance and gambling a little bit on something that was a little unconventional and just trusting the coaching staff.”
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for UAlbany, and Mullen said that stung. The value of Saturday’s game, though, went beyond wins and losses.
“I think [playing this game] means everything,” Mullen said. “I think that’s why I agreed to set this game back up, and start at Siena. I think it’s terrific for women’s basketball. I think it’s terrific for the community and for the Capital Region and the city of Albany, just to get excitement around women’s basketball. These types of games create fans.”
“But we’ll get them next time,” Mullen said.
That “next time” is next year at SEFCU Arena. That matchup is already set, as this year’s game was part of a two-year deal for the programs to play.
“And I can’t wait for next year when we go back there because we’re going to get their very best effort and it’s going to be great,” Jaques said.
Kantzy 0-6 0-2 0, Schecter 6-10 2-2 14, Frames 3-9 2-2 11, Stokes 3-9 0-2 6, Aslan 1-1 2-2 4, Haegerstrand 3-8 0-0 6, Decortes 1-1 0-0 2, Om 1-4 0-0 3, Conroy 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 18-48 6-10 46.
Gerostergiou 0-8 2-2 2, Anthony 1-7 2-2 4, Brown 6-13 3-3 15, Blasetti 0-1 0-0 0, Piper 6-19 6-8 18, Winston 1-1 0-0 2, Hauer 4-0 0-0 8, Watts 0-1 0-0 0, Williamson 1-3 0-0 3. Totals: 19-62 13-15 52.
UAlbany 7 12 21 6 — 46
Siena 8 10 17 17 — 52
Three-point shooting: UAlbany 4-11 (Kantzy 0-1, Frames 3-6, Stokes 0-1, Haegerstrand 0-1, Om 1-2), Siena 1-15 (Gerostergiou 0-4, Anthony 0-3, Brown 0-2, Piper 0-3, Hauer 0-2, Williamson 1-1). Rebounds: UAlbany 35 (Schecter 9), Siena 39 (Gerostergiou 15). Assists: UAlbany 11 (Stokes 5), Siena 4 (Piper 2). Turnovers: UAlbany 22, Siena 16. Total fouls: UAlbany 15, Siena 14. Attendance: 2,148.