SUNY-ALBANY 61, HARTFORD 52
Jennifer Rizzotti and her Hartford Hawks had the America East’s top team right where they wanted it, then watched a valiant effort slip away in the final seconds.
Tournament most outstanding player Megan Craig had 16 points and seven rebounds, Shereesha Richards and Lindsey Lowrie added 12 points apiece, and top-seeded SUNY-Albany rallied past Hartford 61-52 on Saturday night to win its second straight America East Conference tournament.
The defending champion Great Danes (27-3), regular-season champions for the first time in program history, ended the regular season as the lone undefeated team in league play at 16-0 before tacking on two more wins in the postseason. They’ve won 28 straight games against America East opponents, including the postseason.
This one wasn’t so easy. Nikkia Smith’s layup with 97 seconds left in regulation tied the score at 52-all, but the Great Danes scored the game’s final nine points as their defense clamped down.
“They were much more consistent through the season,” Rizzotti said. “We didn’t have any doubts we could play with them. Going into halftime, I felt our team was where it needed to be, a close game, taking their best shot in terms of their full-court pressure, figuring out how to handle it more successfully. I feel like overall our performance was very good.”
Albany swept second-seeded Hartford (21-11) in the season series, posting a 55-48 overtime win in Albany before recording a 66-55 road win. The Great Danes beat New Hampshire 71-57 in the conference semifinals for their 18th straight win and were beating their conference opponents by an average of nearly 24 points.
So close and yet so far.
“We’re here, but obviously not the outcome we wanted,” Smith said. “But I’m proud of my team and everything we’ve done. We’ve overcome a lot this season.”
The Hawks were seeking their sixth title and came up just short. They used a strong defensive performance to beat No. 6 seed Vermont 64-33 in the semifinals. Hartford held Vermont to just eight first-half points and forced 31 turnovers to tie the league postseason record.
When the Great Danes took the lead for good on a basket by Sarah Royals with 1:14 left, the only one she made in the game, the Hawks were unable to counter. Amber Bepko committed a turnover, Smith missed twice, Shanis Bultron threw up a wild three, and Alyssa Englert also missed in close.
“I thought we freaked out at the end of the game a little bit with some of the shots and decisions we made,” Rizzotti said. “Unfortunately, that kind of defined our season a little bit. A lot of our losses were a lack of being able to execute at the end against the good teams.”
Page 2 of 3 - The Albany men beat Vermont 53-49 earlier Saturday to make the NCAA field for the first time since 2007, spoiling the day for the sellout crowd of 3,245 in the hostile environment of the Catamounts’ Patrick Gym. The Albany men became the first team seeded lower than third to win the title and set a school season record with their 24th victory.
The women joined them later despite an off night for Ebone Henry, the all-time leading scorer in school history for Albany (1,631 points). She missed her first seven shots and had failed to score as the midpoint of the second half loomed and the Great Danes trailed by four points.
But after missing an open three-point attempt from the wing, Henry, who finished with five points, converted a pair of runners in the lane sandwiched around a fast-break layup by Richards to give Albany a 42-40 lead with 8:20 to play.
When Julie Forster fouled out with 6:58 left after notching 10 points and four steals and snaring six rebounds, the Great Danes were without their best rebounder, but they failed to wilt.
Henry set up Richards for a shot off the glass and a 52-48 lead with 2:56 left. After Smith’s layup tied it, the Albany defense stifled the Hawks.
With fans holding up a sign that read “Dancing Danes” and roaring, Royals scored from the lane and the 6-foot-8 Craig followed with a shot off the glass as the Danes pulled away.
“Albany knew what they wanted to do at the end,” Rizzotti said. “You could see we were not at the same place. As hard as it is to swallow losing a chance to go to the NCAA tournament, I’m really hoping we have another chance to play (in the WNIT).”
Smith led Hartford with a game-high 18 points, the only Hartford player in double figures. Bultron had seven points and Bepko finished with six for Hartford, which was outscored 38-14 in the paint.
Bultron, who entered the game shooting 5 of 6 from long range in the tournament, snapped a 28-all tie with a three-pointer from the top of the key with 16:23 left. Craig’s shot off the glass put Albany back in front less than two minutes later in a game where the biggest lead was eight.
Craig proved difficult for the Hawks to handle all night. She had two easy layups and Forster added two more as Albany reeled off 10 straight points to gain a 15-8 lead in the first five minutes of play. The surge came after Bepko’s four-point play had given Hartford an 8-5 lead.
With cheerleaders and pep bands from both schools rocking SEFCU Arena on Albany’s campus, the Hawks matched the Great Danes at every turn in the first half and halfway through the second.
Page 3 of 3 - After Richards’ fast-break layup staked Albany to a 24-16 lead at 6:40, Hartford closed the half with a 10-1 spurt to take a 26-25 lead into the locker room. Daphne Elliott started the rush with a three-pointer from the top of the key and Bultron finished it with a pair of baskets in the final 2:18, the first a pretty floater over the outstretched arms of Craig.
The Hawks’ total was just about right for Albany, which entered the game ranked third in the nation, allowing 48.6 points per game. What the Great Danes were lacking in the first half was any sort of scoring contribution from Henry, who missed all four shots she attempted, though she did have three assists.