ALBANY, New York — Shereesha Richards will be remembered as one of the most dominating players in the history of America East women’s basketball.
The senior forward, the three-time conference player of the year, further cemented her legacy in Friday’s conference championship game.
Richards, who was limited to eight points in the second regular-season meeting against the University of Maine, dominated. The 6-foot-1 phenom poured in a game-high 31 points on 11-for-18 shooting, powering top seed Albany to a 59-58 victory over the No. 2 Black Bears at SEFCU Arena.
“The way we defended Richards here looked a lot like the first time we played [this season] and we let her catch the ball on the blocks,” said UMaine coach Richard Barron. “When we played at Maine, we did a much better job of not allowing that and that was a big difference in their ability to score.”
It is the record fifth consecutive America East title for Albany (26-4), which earns the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“Whew!” said Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson who, with her team trailing by five at halftime, made sure the Great Danes knew what they needed to do.
“I just said, ‘We’ve got to get the ball to Shereesha and we’ve got to get the ball to Imani (Tate),’” she said. “That’s what we did and they really went to work.”
The Black Bears (26-7) are not expected to receive NCAA at-large consideration, thus will earn the conference’s bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, in which it also competed last season. That helps temper the sadness of losing to Albany.
“We’ve had a good four years together and we’re excited that it’s not done and we’re looking forward to going to the NIT and making a run there,” Barron said.
Richards grabbed nine rebounds to complement her offensive production on the way to her third tournament Most Outstanding Player award. She was joined on the all-tournament team by Tate, Liz Wood and Sigi Koizar of UMaine and Stony Brook’s Brittany Snow.
“She just does so much for us and she’s so selfless and she’s fearless and she’s intense. She willed us to win, pretty much,” said Abrahamson-Henderson.
UMaine, which had bottled up Richards in its Feb. 14 win at the Cross Insurance Center by combining a 1-2-2 matchup zone and player-to-player defenses, this time opted to play straight up.
Barron again let the players decide what the defensive approach would be. Wood (10 points, 6 rebounds) picked up two early fouls and wound up playing only 28 minutes before fouling out with 2:37 left.
The Great Danes scored 28 points in the paint.
“I think they were just looking for her more,” Wood said of Richards’ offensive success.
“You let up for one second or you let her get one inch on you, then she’s going to get position,” she added.
Tate finished with 15 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals for the Great Danes, who shot 48 percent (12-for-25) in the second half and 46 percent for the game.
UMaine was paced by junior guard Koizar, who posted 15 points on 5-for-12 shooting. Senior Mikaela Gustafsson contributed 11 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Seniors Bella Swan (six rebounds) and Chantel Charles added eight points each for the Black Bears, who connected at 39 percent but went 10-for-29 (35 percent) in the second half and were 12-for-18 from the foul line.
“We should have shot free throws better,” Barron said.
“We certainly respect Albany’s defense,” he added. “We didn’t shoot the ball well in the second half.”
Friday’s game went down to the wire after Richards converted four straight foul shots to make it 57-52 with 1:52 to play. However, Lauren Bodine and Koizar sandwiched 3-pointers around a close-range bucket by Richards to cut Albany’s lead to 59-58 with 45.9 seconds left.
Tate missed a midrange jumper and Bodine rebounded, giving UMaine the ball with 21.3 seconds left and a chance to win it. After a timeout, the Black Bears set up but settled for Koizar’s off-balance scoop shot from the lane, which came up short.
With 2.6 seconds left, Charles was whistled for an intentional foul against Cassandra Edwards, who proceeded to miss both free throws. Then, when Albany inbounded from near the UMaine bench, players from both teams got tangled up near midcourt and fell to the court. The ball bounced out of bounds.
With new life, the Black Bears inbounded in front of their bench. It went to Gustafsson, who was bottled up near the 3-point arc and threw up an off-balance heave that missed as the final horn sounded.
“I think it goes a lot faster,” an emotional Gustafsson said of the limited time on the clock. “I think I was trying to look more toward the basket (rather than pass).”
“The last play wasn’t what decided the game,” Wood interjected. “We lost by one. I missed two free throws. You can’t judge the game by the last play. There’s lot of places that we could have made up one or two points.”
The Great Danes seized the momentum after trailing 47-43 at the 7:50 mark. Tate drove in and scored, then Zakiya Saunders made a 14-footer to tie it.
Charles hit a turnaround shot from the foul line for UMaine, but Richards scored from down low and Tate snipped a 10-footer after one of only nine Black Bear turnovers to make it 51-49 and give Albany the lead for good with 5:25 to play.
“We’ve just got to make one or two more shots. That was it,” Barron said.