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Next up - NCAA win - Iorizzo column in TU+

There was a pile-up of players near halfcourt, all tumbling over one another as America East championship caps got passed around. Meanwhile, the pep band poured from the stands, chanting "5-peat! 5-peat! 5-peat!". Away from the commotion, University at Albany women's basketball coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson and school president Robert Jones embraced. "Holy moly, you scared me to death," Jones said. And then they did a couple quick dance steps.
Now the Great Danes all are dancing again, for the fifth straight year, after a stomach-churning 59-58 victory over Maine in the conference title game that left everyone wearing purple gasping for air.
UAlbany really wanted this one. Why? Because the Great Danes really want the next one. UAlbany is 0-4 in four oh-so-close NCAA Tournament games, but if you asked anyone celebrating on the SEFCU Arena court Friday, the program's most historic win is coming next week.
"I really wanted to win this," Jones said. "I wanted them to get to the NCAA Tournament, because I know they're going to win this time. They're going to go farther than they ever have. I guarantee it."
The Great Danes will find out their opponent Monday night during the women's Selection Show, but whatever their seed, wherever they're sent, whomever their opponent, they'll take the court with every right to expect a victory.
"That's our next goal. Our next goal is get to the next win," Abrahamson-Henderson said. "One of our goals was not to lose at home, and we didn't all year. That was huge. The next was to win the championship, and we got that. The next one is to win the next game, an NCAA Tournament game." The Danes will go to the NCAA Tournament with one advantage: The best player on the court almost certainly will be wearing a UAlbany uniform. Senior forward Shereesha scored 31 points against Maine, but her stat line tells only part of the story.
The Bears piled up fouls while bullying her around the paint with double- and triple-teams. That didn't stop the coaching staff from reminding the Great Danes at halftime, "Get the ball to No. 25." Nor did it stop Richards from forging her way to the basket and the foul line, where she went 9-for-10. Richards will have played in the NCAA Tournament every year of her career, which is only fitting, because she deserves to be on the national radar. A victory in the field of 64 is one of the few achievements that's eluded a player with more than 2,000 career points. "We want it very badly," Richards said of an NCAA Tournament win. "I'm a senior now. This is it. This is the year it's going to happen."
It's almost happened three years in a row, beginning with Richards' freshman season, when the Great Danes nearly toppled No. 3-seeded North Carolina before losing 59-54. The next year, they battled from behind to scare West Virginia in a 76-61 loss. And last year they nearly jolted No. 4 Duke from the bracket in a 54-52 defeat.
Abrahamson-Henderson pointed out bigger schools like to play man-to-man defense, something UAlbany embraces, because it believes it can get other players involved when Richards gets double-teamed. And the big-name schools often are surprised when faced with the ferocity of this plucky mid-major's press. But more important than the X's and O's is the collective will of a team whose coach demands that her players fight and scrap for everything, be it in life or basketball. Her program, she says, is about building strong women, and winning basketball games just happens to be a byproduct of the larger goals.
Their strength was never more obvious than when they went to halftime trailing by five points after an 11-0 Maine run closed the second quarter, only to emerge from the locker room unflustered. "I like that about them; they never quit," said Jones, a regular attendee of the women's games. "They never stop fighting. They get behind, and they keep coming. They don't give up." They don't back down, either, which is one of the reasons they won't get caught up in following the prognostications about where they might get seeded and whom they might play in the NCAAs.
The name on the opposing team's jersey won't shake their confidence that they're on the verge of something historic. "Whoever it is," Richards said with a shrug, "we'll be ready."
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UAlbany Sports ‏@UAlbanySports 59s60 seconds ago The Great Danes win!!! #ThanksObama LOL

Oh, Indeed, the Lady Danes won last night .. by 6 points... They gritted through a very cold shooting night, I wish the Catamount faithful, whining about the zebras elsewhere, were at the SEFCU to se

Awesome...then horrible...then awesome ending to that game.   Five Championships in a row. Never been done before until now.

How UAlbany built a dynasty - Iorizzo on the T-U front page, and TU+


One after another, University at Albany women's basketball players climbed a ladder at SEFCU Arena on Friday night and, with scissors in hand, clipped off a piece of the nets.

It's a college basketball tradition for teams that win their conference championships to cut down the nets and save a piece of twine, and it's become an annual ritual for the Great Danes, who won the America East Tournament title for the fifth consecutive season. Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson was the last person up the ladder after UAlbany defeated Maine 59-58 in the championship game. She cut the rest of the net off the hoop and then swung it over her head, motioning for the fans to cheer louder. She's the architect of a program that this week will play in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year, an achievement that was all but impossible to imagine when she was hired on April 19, 2010. Coach Abe, as she's known, arrived with a surprisingly simple blueprint: Build strong women, she often says, and you can build a winning basketball team.

But the culture change she brought and winning basketball that followed were hardly so simple. There were doubts to overcome off the court and challenges on the court.

This is how UAlbany became a women's basketball powerhouse.

Step 1: They hired the right coach.

On March 8, 2010, Trina Patterson, who had coached the team for eight seasons, resigned. At that point, the school had been competing in Division I, the highest level of college athletics, for 11 years, and the women's basketball program never had managed a winning record. The administration organized a search committee that included both athletics officials and basketball players. The group, led by associate director of athletics Cara White, a former Great Danes player, received about 150 applications. One stood out.

It wasn't an application, really, so much as a book: a professionally bound portfolio outlining a playing career at the University of Georgia and the University of Iowa as well as assistant coaching stops at Maine, Michigan State and Indiana, among other places, plus head-coaching experience at Missouri State. White and the applicant planned for an informal meet-and-greet at a hotel lobby in San Antonio, where both were attending the Final Four. Abrahamson-Henderson, then 43 years old, made a striking first impression. "We both show up, and she's dressed in a full-on suit," White said. "It was very impressive. She was dressing for the job she wanted; she had a confidence about her. And it all just kind of clicked."

Abrahamson-Henderson was one of three candidates later brought to campus for interviews. The search committee got to meet a 6-foot-3 woman with a powerful personality who, through the trace of a Midwestern accent from growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, articulated a philosophy that was as much mother as coach. "She said her priorities would be family, academics and basketball, in that order," White said.

When then-athletic director Lee McElroy called to offer Abrahamson-Henderson the job, he stressed that there was no expectation she'd be able to quickly build a winner. "I told her, 'Look, I know this is going to be tough,' " McElroy recalled this past week. Her answer, as McElroy remembers it: "My expectation is we're going to win immediately."

Step 2: They changed the culture.

Soon after her hiring, Abrahamson-Henderson met her players for the first time in the SEFCU Arena locker room. She asked all the players to introduce themselves. They shook her hand and said their names. The coach didn't like what she saw. "We all did it wrong," recalled former UAlbany captain Ebone Henry.Few of the players gave both their first and last names. Most offered only dead-fish handshakes. And hardly any made eye contact.

Coach Abe's first lessons had nothing to do with how to run a zone offense or trap a ball screen. First things first, she said: Stand up straight. When you walk into a room, introduce yourself, using your full name and with a firm handshake. And always make eye contact. There was more: Players had to arrive 15 minutes early for everything. In class, they were to sit in the front three rows.

Meanwhile, Coach Abe was beginning to organize networking events like "Phenomenal Women Night," a monthly gathering that would bring her players together with prominent women in the community.

As she saw it, the Great Danes couldn't be strong basketball players without being strong women. But to the players, the new rules seemed unnecessarily burdensome.

Sure, the players were feeling a sense of pride in surprising men with the strength of their handshakes, but how was that going to help win games?

A few months after Abrahamson-Henderson's hire, two players went to the office of McElroy, the athletic director, to complain about the new coach's demands. It was a bold move, going over the coach's head to her boss, and it underscored the early unhappiness among the players with the program's direction. McElroy told them they had a choice: They could buy into Abrahamson-Henderson's way, or they could transfer.

His message was clear. The coach — and her culture — were here to stay. "We didn't buy in right away," Henry admitted. "But over time, we started to realize, 'Hey, our old way clearly wasn't successful. This lady's trying to change things. We might as well give it a chance.' " In Abrahamson-Henderson's first season, the Great Danes posted a 16-14 record, their first winning record as a Division I program.

Step 3: They made basketball fun again.

The team still was struggling to make sense of a fiercely competitive woman who also signs her emails in a flowery purple font and, behind the scenes, shows a silly sense of humor and willingness to suddenly bust a dance move.

But one thing was abundantly clear: UAlbany had hired a damn good basketball coach. There was no reluctance from the players to embrace her style of play: fast, aggressive and physical. Women's basketball coaches around the country have acknowledged that to grow a bigger audience for the game, the product needs to improve. The sport has to better showcase the ability and athleticism of the young women who dedicate so much to the game.

The sport might be in a much better place if every team played like the Great Danes. Their full-court press defense is as much a joy to watch as it is a challenge to break, and their dynamic offense won't bore anyone.

"Oh, it's fun to watch," said Bill Forster, whose daughter, Julie, played three years for Abrahamson-Henderson before graduating and whose other daughter, Heather, now comes off the bench for the Great Danes. "I really like the way we push the ball this year. It's a good brand of basketball."

Through the past five years, they've become virtually unbeatable in the America East Conference, running up a 74-6 league record. Statistically, the Great Danes also rank with some of the nation's best programs. They average 18.7 more points per game than their opponents, which is the sixth-best margin in all of Division I, and they make 47.4 percent of their shots, which is fourth-best nationally.

Still, UAlbany's most transformative victory didn't happen on the court. It came on the recruiting trail, when Abrahamson-Henderson and her staff happened upon a lanky, ultra-athletic teenager from Jamaica named Shereesha Richards.

Richards, who had moved from the island to New Jersey after eighth grade, was virtually ignored by every other college coach, because even though her physical ability and competitiveness were off the charts, she had little basketball experience. She'd grown up playing netball, a Jamaican alternative. Four years later, Richards is by far the greatest women's college basketball player in Capital Region history. Her 2,403 career points are more than any other player in UAlbany history, man or woman, and she's widely projected to play in the WNBA next year. "She's one of the best players in the country, period," says Duke coach Joanne McCallie, who has faced Richards three times, including in last year's NCAA Tournament, when the Great Danes almost upset her Blue Devils. "She's very difficult to stop in any way, shape or form. They're all so gritty, blue-collar. They fight."

UAlbany will have its biggest fight of the season later this week, when it plays in the NCAA Tournament. A victory in the signature event of the women's basketball season is one of the few achievements that has eluded the program. The Great Danes lost in the first round in each of their previous appearances.

They will take the court as underdogs, but no one who follows the team will dismiss their chances. They have the coach, the culture and the talent to make history.

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A little late, but some reflections on Friday's game: WOW. Shereesha put on a show and was not going to let the game get away. Saunders was a bit off from the field, but I came away very impressed from the effort put in by Bose and Cassandra. Bose had a huge offensive rebound that led to free throws early on (which she made 1 for her only point of the afternoon), but more importantly, it was the first show of fight on the day from an unlikely source. Edwards played serious minutes, playing the first half with most of her left hand in a cast, but came out at halftime without it. Although she missed the FT's at the end which could have been critical, she grinded out a good game, setting countless screens, and playing good defense. Bravo!

 

Can't wait to find out where they will be playing!

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Richards AE Career Scoring:

 

With last nights 41 she remains in 5th place with 2286. We keep wining she should be get to 2nd. 3005 is ridiculous, will probably never be broken.

 

1. Cindy Blodgett Maine 1994-98 3005

2. Rachel Bouchard Maine 1987-91 2405

3. Jamie Cassidy Maine 1996-20 2380

4. Karalyn Church Vermont 1996-20 2317

After AE title game, Richards at 2403

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Friday at noon at the Carrier Dome.

 

Common opponent Tennessee, Fla. won 74-66, Albany lost 63-55

 

Tickets go on sale to the general public at 11 a.m. on Tuesday.
All session tickets (three games) are $30 for adults and $15 for youth, college students with ID, and senior citizens. Single session prices for the first round (two games) are $20 for adults and $10 for youth, college students with ID, and senior citizens. Group tickets (20 or more) are $10 for adults and $8 for youth. Single session prices for the second round (one game) are $15 for adults and $10 for youth, college students with ID, and senior citizens. Group tickets (20 or more) are $10 for adults and $8 for youth.
Edited by UAalum72
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Alumni Assoc : Working on the bus/ticket package to the carrier dome! #NCAADanes

29 signed up so far for the fan bus. $25 including bus and lower level seat. Leaves Alumni House at 8 a.m.

http://www.alumni.albany.edu/s/1642/02-alumni/index.aspx?sid=1642&pgid=1231&gid=2&cid=2719&ecid=2719&post_id=0

Edited by UAalum72
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