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Times Union Sports Figure of the Year: Shereesha Richards

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It was a record-setting 2016 for the University at Albany women's basketball team. A big reason for that was Shereesha Richards, who in her final season averaged 21.6 points and 9.0 rebounds as the Great Danes went 28-5 and reached the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year. She was a slam dunk choice for the Times Union's 2016 Sports Figure of the Year.

Richards was named the America East Player of the Year and ended her career as the program's all-time leading scorer (2,440 points) and second-leading rebounder (1,053).
Richards now is pursuing a professional career, playing in Spain. The 6-foot-1 Richards is averaging 12.7 points and 7.8 rebounds for CD Zamarat.
We caught up with Richards via telephone after a recent practice in Spain.
Q: What are your thoughts of being named the Times Union Sports Figure of the Year?
A: It's a great honor. I am actually excited! How did it come about?
Q: We go through a list of athletes who did extraordinary things during the year. We wanted to find the person who had the best year, and we thought that person was you.
A: Well, thank you. I am very honored.
Q: What do you remember most about your final year at UAlbany?
A: I would say the season. It was a great senior year. Everything fell into place as far as winning games and a (America East Conference) championship. Going past the first round (of the NCAA Tournament). A great senior year overall, something I will always remember.
Q: Does it seem like your senior year — well, actually your whole Albany career — went by in a heartbeat?
A: A little bit. In the moment, it kind of seems slow, but when you look back on it, you are like, 'Oh, my gosh! I have already graduated!' And now I am almost halfway through my first season of playing professional basketball. Yes, it has gone by a little fast.
Q: How has the adjustment been for you, going from college to professional basketball?
A: To be honest, I would say it's been good. I love playing with my team. We haven't won many games (4-9), but it's still a great experience. I just have to think this is my first year and I have to make the best of it and do whatever I am able to do.
Q: Do you still have hopes of one day playing in the WNBA?
A: Yeah. There is still a good possibility. But I am not rushing anything. I just have to get better.
Q: I remember talking to you during the whole (WNBA) draft process. Were you surprised you didn't get drafted?
A: Not really. (Laughs.) Like I said before, in my mind, I always thought it was a 50-50 chance. If you got drafted, you got drafted. If you didn't, well, you know, then it is what it is.
Q: You still believe you can play in the WNBA, don't you?
A: I still think I can. It's up to me to get better. Nothing is impossible.
Q: Do you keep in touch with any of your old teammates at Albany?
A: Yes. All the time! Every day! Mostly Erin (Coughlin, now an assistant coach at UAlbany), Aubrey (Hernandez, a senior guard) and Cass (senior guard Cassandra Edwards). Pretty much, I talk to everyone. I still watch the games and see how everyone is doing. I've told a couple of the girls that it's just the beginning of the year. Obviously, they have to get adjusted to the new coach; she has to get adjusted to them. It's not going to be the best year, because everything is a new transition. They just have to look forward to conference and play hard in every game. Conference games matter the most. I hope they win another championship and get back to the NCAAs. (The current UAlbany team is 6-6.)
Q: You have gone from being a player to being a big fan of the program.
A: (Laughs.) I always have to be a fan. That's where I went to college for four years, and I still have friends and teammates there.
Q: What do you like most about Spain?
A: I would say the scenery. We have been to a few places, and it's really nice looking at the buildings and how defined they are and how they were built. We took a tour of Zamora (city in Spain), and we saw a few buildings. Looking at the area and the buildings was pretty decent. One of my favorite things so far.
Q: What number do you wear over there?
A: The same number (25) I wore in college.
Q: And you are in the starting lineup?
A: Sometimes I start, sometimes I don't. It depends on what the coach wants, I guess.
Q: Is there a language barrier?
A: Yes, a little. But, pretty much, all the girls on the team understand English either enough or a little. And the coach talks in English. For me, understanding the Spanish is a little bit hard. I would say I have gotten better the last couple months I have been here. I understand some stuff they are saying. I know the basics. The longer I am here, the better I will get with that. If you are here for awhile, you can pretty much grasp the language.
Q: How many games are there in your season?
A: I want to say 28.
Q: How long of a Christmas break do you get? (She is going home to Jamaica to see her family.)
A: We are off from Dec. 18 through the 27th.
Q: When you are a college player, you play for the love of the game and your school. Is it a different feeling when you are playing professionally and getting paid for it?
A: I still have a love for the game. The only difference for me is that I don't have to do school work. (Laughs.) I just get up, eat breakfast, get ready for practice, go to practice, come back, rest or go find something to do and then get ready for another practice later.
Q: Growing up, did you ever think you would one day be getting paid to play basketball?
A: No. I didn't start playing at an early age like a lot of people. My mind-set, when I first started playing, was try to get a college scholarship so I could get a degree. The thought of going to college, at first, was, "OK, will I be able to get a Division I scholarship?" I don't know. Then it happened, and I got a Division I scholarship. Going into senior year, the thought was, "Will I get a chance to play professional basketball?" That thought wasn't there until my senior year — and here I am. You have to take it one step at a time, because you don't know what is going to happen. You wait and see for what opportunities might pop up.
Q: You like it, because if you didn't, you wouldn't do it.
A: That's true.
Q: Have you ever started to think about how long you want to keep playing? And, yes, I know this is your first year as a pro.
A: Not really. If you set an age or a time on it, I think you could lose interest. One day I might just feel like throwing it in the bag and doing something different and then you go do that. But it hasn't gotten close to that point yet.
Q: Do you miss Albany?
A: I miss my friends. I do not miss the snow or the cold.



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Also among the Top 10 sport stories of the year:

• No. 1: UAlbany women's basketball team wins NCAA Tournament game
Why it makes our list: UAlbany made its fifth straight trip to the Big Dance and finally got its first win. The 12th-seeded Great Danes overcame a 17-point deficit and upset No. 5 Florida 61-59 in a first-round game at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. The Danes' run ended one game later when Syracuse, which reached the national championship game against eventual winner Connecticut, beat UAlbany, 76-59.
She said it: "They fought like warriors. They were fearless. Florida got a little tired, and we just kept pressing and pressing. We're the type of team that never gets tired." — UAlbany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson.
• No. 4: Coach Abe exits UAlbany to become coach at Central Florida
Why it makes our list: In her six years at UAlbany, Katie Abrahamson-Henderson put the UAlbany women's program on the mid-major basketball map. Her Great Dane teams had a combined 146-47 record and went to the NCAA Tournament five straight years. With all that success, the UAlbany athletic department knew it would not be able to keep Abrahamson-Henderson forever. Central Florida of the American Athletic Conference swooped in and offered her the head-coaching job, and she took it. The Danes filled the position by hiring Joanna Bernabei-McNamee.
He said it: "I think it's no surprise people are interested in Coach Abe. She's done a fantastic job here. The record speaks for itself. And she turned the program around almost immediately. Yeah, we definitely expected this at some point for her." — UAlbany athletic director Mark Benson
• No. 5: The Albany Cup comes to SEFCU Arena
Why it makes our list: On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the annual men's and women's basketball games between Siena and UAlbany were played at SEFCU Arena, home of the Great Danes. For the 15 prior years, the games were played at the much bigger Times Union Center, which is Siena's home court. Siena coach Jimmy Patsos and UAlbany coach Will Brown spiced up the rivalry by going back and forth at each other through the media in the days leading up to the game. UAlbany announced a sellout crowd of 4,538, and the Great Danes completed a sweep.
He said it: "For more than a decade, I have been pushing for home and home, home and home. If this is a true series, we rotate." — UAlbany men's coach Will Brown
Honorable mentions:
... the UAlbany women's soccer team gets to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year; the Great Danes men's soccer team makes their first appearance in the NCAAs;
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