ALBANY, NY -- Tonight, Stony Brook can rest a little more easily.
The season-destroying boogeyman that has been Will Brown's Albany Great Danes was bounced from the America East Tournament tonight by Hartford, who upset the three-time reigning conference champions, 68-59, in SEFCU Arena.
The Great Danes (24-8) came into this game with all the confidence that three straight America East championships will build in a team, especially one facing a nine-win Hartford team that they had just dispatched at home a few days earlier. But the Hartford Hawks (10-22), coming off of that loss, were also extremely confident knowing they played Albany closely at home, and only needed a few more wrinkles to pull of the upset in the first round of the America East tournament."We left here Saturday night and not to be cocky, but we knew we would win this game," head coach John Gallagher said.The Hawks had a plan. They knew that Albany makes opponents scramble, and they simply had to be prepared, to be at the right spots on the floor.Hartford and Albany traded baskets early, but from the beginning, Hartford sagged in a zone to prevent Albany from dictating the game's physicality, driving into the paint and drawing free throws, wearing the other team out as they normally do. The Hawks' Pancake Thomas (16 points on 5/13 shooting) started out hot, and Albany couldn't answer, restricted to perimeter shots. The Danes hit only two three-pointers, both by Peter Hooley, both in the first three minutes of the game."To be honest with you, they played us the way I would play us," Brown said. "A soft zone, daring us to shoot. The zone takes away our driving angles, keeps us off the free throw line. We lost that game in the first half."Albany shot 6/18 inside the arc and 2/10 from the three-point line, and only drew four foul shots (14% free Throw rate) in that half. Meanwhile, Hartford shot 9/17 from beyond the arc, only had one turnover to Albany's eight, and had six players with at least one three-pointer made. But the hosts would not go quietly, banging the offensive glass as hard as they could and making a run in the second half. The Danes forced Hartford into a six-minute scoring drought using energy and half court traps, and the crowd came alive. Hartford did just enough to hang on, keeping Albany out of transition with three-quarter court pressure.The Great Danes found some fire from star guards Ray Sanders (nine of his 13 in the second half) and Evan Singletary, while (all six points in the second half) Joe Cremo added six of his nine in the half, and Albany started to wear Hartford down. But the effort was too little, too late.Albany whittled the deficit to five, but JR Lynch's dagger, a corner three with one minute left in the game, expanded the lead to eight and took away the realistic chance of an Albany comeback."Every time we got close, the ball didn't bounce our way," Brown said, noting that his team chased for rebounds so hard at times that they knocked the ball out of teammates' hands.Lynch, who hit the shot that perhaps decided the game, finished with eight points. George Blagojevic had 13 points and eight rebounds for the Hawks, who also got 13 points from Jalen Ross."When you're in a growing program like Hartford that's never won, we needed this win to get us going," said Gallagher, showing his excitement for the future of the Hawks' program. "We're not going away."His counterpart knows the team's 24-8 record should make them a candidate for the lower-level postseason tournaments."We'll be in another tournament, for sure," Brown said. "It's another game for your seniors, it's another game for your younger guys. We'll have the opportunity to pick where we want to go.""It's been a great run," he added. "I'm proud of Peter, proud of Evan and Ray. It just wasn't our night."And for Peter Hooley, whose run at Albany has seen him become a beloved figure, the loss brought him to tears as he thanked the coach and the fans for becoming family, especially in the wake of losing his mother in the middle of last season."We just dug ourselves too big of a hole," he said, fighting back tears.