ALBANY, New York — The stands weren’t exactly jammed with fans, but the University at Albany took advantage of familiar surroundings during Friday’s America East women’s basketball championship game.
As they had in each of the previous four seasons, the Great Danes enjoyed the luxury of playing on their home court at SEFCU Arena. And for the fourth year in a row, they won in their own building.
Albany earned the right to host the title contest by virtue of their regular-season performance — and their strength of schedule. The Great Danes (27-4) and the Black Bears (26-8) split their regular-season meetings and finished with identical 15-1 conference records to share the America East regular-season title.
However, Albany was awarded the No. 1 seed over UMaine by virtue of their higher standing in the Rating Percentage Index (RPI). And with a largely partisan crowd of 1,519 on hand and the schools’ bands dueling back and forth, it was an atmosphere worthy of a championship game.
Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, when asked about who her team might draw in the first round of the NCAA tournament, pointed to how important the home court can be.
“Hopefully, we don’t have to play somebody on their home court, because as you see tonight that’s hard to do, especially in the tournament,” she said.
Despite falling well short of capacity as spring break began at UAlbany, there was tremendous postseason intensity, passion and competition both on and off the court.
The Albany pep band dueled with the contingent from UMaine, which helped spur on the gathering of some 75-100 Black Bear fans who made the trip to the New York state capital in the hope of seeing UMaine win its first conference championship since 2004.
“Our band and our fans are here. You don’t see that at every school, so I’m really proud to be a proud of Maine and have that support of the community and my girls here at Maine,” said UMaine senior captain Liz Wood.
Even though the Black Bear players are accustomed to playing in front of larger crowds at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, the environment at SEFCU Arena provided some challenges.
“I think maybe a little bit of the atmosphere, maybe with the communication, we lost just a little bit off of our timing,” UMaine coach Richard Barron said of trying to operate over the din of the crowd. “It may have affected some of our shooting, but we felt like we executed well.”
Ironically, Albany star forward Shereesha Richards alluded to the fact that her subpar, eight-point performance during the Great Danes’ 65-53 loss to UMaine in Bangor last month may have had something to do with the Black Bears’ vociferous fans.
“The atmosphere is totally different from here,” said Richards.
On Friday, she seemed to feed off the energy of the home crowd as she dissected the Black Bears’ defense on Friday on the way to 31 points, nine rebounds and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honor.
UMaine had harbored high hopes of playing the championship game in Bangor each of the last two seasons.
In 2015, the Black Bears secured the right to host the final as they shared the regular-season crown with Albany but earned the No. 1 seed based on conference tiebreakers.
However, UMaine was knocked off in the semifinals by Hartford, which took that possibility out of the equation.
Dating back to a regular-season loss to Albany last season in Bangor, the Black Bears have won 18 consecutive games at the Cross Insurance Center. Their next opportunity may come in the upcoming Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
The WNIT field will be announced on Monday night after the NCAA tourney field is finalized.
Sting hasn’t set in
UMaine players and coaches held their heads high in the aftermath of Friday’s loss, which shattered their dreams of a championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Barron said he and the Black Bears are taking no solace in restoring the program to respectability and coming up short in the title game.
“Just to get to this point is not something that any of us in our locker room are happy hearing right now because we believe that we can do better and that we missed an opportunity,” he explained, “so there’s disappointment for us in that.”
Wood maintained her usual poise during the postgame press conference, but shared how she was feeling.
“I think it’s hard to put all the emotions of what we’ve been through this past four years, how hard we’ve worked and the disappointment of today, but I think I’m just thankful, if I would have to use just one word, for the experience,” she said.
UMaine fans make presence felt
There was a respectable contingent of UMaine fans on hand for Friday’s game.
The supporters included a group that took a bus to the event, along with a good gathering of family members and friends. Among the fans were former UMaine players Ali Nalivaika and Courtney Anderson.
UMaine’s athletics administration was represented by associate athletic director for internal operations Will Biberstein and associate director of athletic development Seth Woodcock.
Athletics director Karlton Creech is in Florida during March break doing some fundraising work with UMaine donors.