Three Thoughts: UAlbany 60, New Hampshire 58

It would have been good if it went in.

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New Hampshire sophomore Jaleen Smith’s final heave from the three-point line for the win fell short, to let the Great Danes advance to the America East finals.

After Albany junior Ray Sanders made the second of his two free throws, New Hampshire sophomore Jaleen Smith came clean off of an inbounds pass, past his man with a chance for a last shot. The play, called “hook” as Wildcats head coach Bill Herrion said, worked to perfection as much as a desperation play could have.

“It felt good, when I shot it,” Smith said. “Then I leaned to the side, so I knew it was going to be off towards the end.”

His right wing three-pointer landed short of the iron, ensuring that the top seeded Great Danes would host the America East championship against third-seeded Stony Brook on Saturday.

“This wasn’t a masterpiece, but we did what we needed to do survive and advance,” Albany head coach Will Brown said.

It was not a complete game from the Great Danes, who have won 21 of their last 23 games. Here are three thoughts from UAlbany’s victory on Sunday afternoon.

Danes Defense Key To Turnaround – Will Brown knew that in the only loss the team had in conference play, they were forced to play a three-point game rather than working it inside. Through the first half it appeared that the Wildcats baited the Great Danes into a shooting contest, by making five first half three-pointers and taking a 35-32 lead into the locker room. However, Albany locked down New Hampshire in the second half, forcing them into tough shots and denying them chances at driving in the lane off their ball screens.

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Albany junior Peter Hooley scored a season-high 21 points in the win.

“I think, in the second half, the big difference is we decided to play some defense,” Brown said. “We held them to 29% shooting in the second half.”

Not only that but Albany held the Wildcats without a point for seven straight possessions over the course of just under five minutes. Even after New Hampshire made another charge to come back into the game, Albany consistently stopped them when it counted. The Wildcats would not score on their final three possessions, each of them giving them a chance to tie the game or take the lead. Smith drove the lane, but had it contested and a held ball gave the Wildcats another chance that they squandered when Daniel Dion got trapped too late on the shot clock and forced a 25 foot three from the left wing that never had a chance. Smith then had the last second heave, contested by Hooley and Wheeler Baker, but missed to end the game.

“I knew I had to make a stop, the shot clock went down everyone has confidence and I’m pretty sure Smith hit one on me when the shot clock was going down, so really just tried to stay back,” Hooley said. “He was pretty deep and luckily it came off the side of the rim and Ray got the rebound, but it’s nerve racking.”

Hooley Easing Into Stride For Great Danes – Peter Hooley is in just his seventh game since returning from his leave of absence, scored a season-high 21 points. It wasn’t just his three triples, but how the junior took the ball off the bounce, scoring in the lane off the window and making five of his six two-pointers, that proved the Australian is back.

“I mean I take what the defense gives me, I managed to get a couple open shots early,” Hooley said. “I’m sure if I didn’t make some shots somebody else would have stepped up and knocked theirs down, but Sam got harassed and wrestled, football and everything, so everyone else had to step up when they had to and they did.”

For a long time Will Brown knew that this year’s team was going to be focused on the duo of senior Sam Rowley and the junior Hooley, however when the 6’5” Australian left the team to be with his mother that was in doubt. The 6’6” senior carried the roster, along with help from junior Evan Singletary and Ray Sanders in Hooley’s absence, but they are best when the two captains are on their game. New Hampshire focused on Rowley, doubling him on every touch, which forced the senior to find open cutters and shooters.

Dallas Ennema has been starting every night since Hooley’s absence and Brown wants to keep it that way heading into Saturday. Brown said that he sat down with Hooley and Ennema and explained that the sophomore will start but that Hooley will continue to eat into his minutes moving forward.

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The season-ending injury to Tanner Leissner forced New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion to scramble for depth up front, especially against Albany’s front court.

“Dallas knows his minutes are going down, we didn’t have good defensive match ups for Dallas tonight, so he didn’t get the minutes,” Brown said. “I have a feeling that Dallas is going to make a big play or hit a big shot on Saturday. Peter is the best guard in the league, you know me I love my guys, now I said Sam should be Player of the Year and Peter is the best guard in the league, but nobody is going to argue that one with me. We have to ride our best guys and Dallas is going to play, but we’ll start Dallas on Saturday, but Peter will come off the bench and that’s a pretty good guy to come off the bench.”

Wildcats Short On Bodies – The Wildcats were dealt a blow two days after the America East playoff bracket was set. The conference’s Rookie of the Year, Tanner Leissner, suffered an injury in practice on Monday going for a rebound and his ankle injury effectively sidelined him from the playoffs.

“We miss Leissner, he’s a really good player and just, I say that because in a game of this magnitude we needed another body up front and we didn’t have it,” Herrion said.

The injury forced Bill Herrion to play plenty of his forward depth in looking to keep Sam Rowley and the Albany big men in check, including Sam’s brother Mike who found his groove in the second half. Sophomore Jacoby Armstrong did all he could to slow down the front court, but he got in foul trouble. Freshman Iba Camara battled inside, but he is still vulnerable to mistakes, while Frank Okeke showed his versatility taking a much needed charge on Singletary in the game’s final two minutes.

“It seemed like their adjustment, I don’t know if [Will Brown] said it or not, was just drive these guys off the dribble in the 2nd half,” Herrion said. “I don’t even know if they made a jump shot in the second half, I think Rowley made a foul line jumper, they were just driving everything and we were having a lot of trouble just containing the ball and playing the dribble and that got us in trouble.”

Albany did not make a three in the second half, missing all five of their tries, but they converted 10 of their 16 two-pointers and drained 14 free throws for the game. Their attacking proved to be the difference in the game because the Wildcats went to the line only four times, converting two freebies.

“These guys, their ability to get the free throw line through the years has been the strength of their basketball team,” Herrion said. “We had to keep them off the line and obviously we didn’t get to the line. That’s the difference in the game, I’d say that’s the the free throw line, I think it’s, period.”

Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.

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