America East Championship: Albany’s Poise Under Pressure Sends Great Danes Dancing Again

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STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Moments after he cut down the nets for a fourth time as the men’s head basketball coach of the Albany Great Danes, Will Brown was still coaching.

“Don’t lose that net!” he shouted to his son while preparing for a post-game interview on the basketball floor at Stony Brook’s Pritchard Gymnasium. Brown had just draped the freshly-snipped net around the neck of his son, who began to enthusiastically run away with the coveted keepsake of Albany’s second consecutive America East title as a four seed.

A short while earlier, Brown was trying to figure out how to return to the point where he was in position to relive one of sports’ greatest rituals for celebrating a championship.

The eventual Most Outstanding Player of this year’s America East tournament, Australian sophomore sharpshooter, Peter Hooley, was struggling on just 2-of-13 shooting, after averaging 28 points per game over Albany’s two prior wins in the tournament.

And fellow Aussie, junior forward Sam Rowley, who finished Saturday’s title game with a game-high 18 points, had just fouled out, with 7:02 left, and the Great Danes trailing the second-seeded Stony Brook Seawolves, 52-46.

“I was worried,” Brown admitted later. “I thought we’d be able to defend and rebound without Sam, [but] I didn’t know where the points were going to come from… there were probably a lot of people watching who thought, ‘The game’s over.’”

To make matters worse, history and emotion were on Stony Brook’s side in a loud, intimate setting that seats 1,700.

It was the final game at Pritchard, where prior to Saturday, the Seawolves were 61-18 (.a 772 winning percentage) since moving back there in 2008 — while construction is being finished on the new Stony Brook Arena next door — including 37-3 in their previous 40 games in the building. That stretch ended with Stony Brook’s five-point, regular season win over Albany on the same floor, thirteen days earlier.

Teams that hosted the America East final were also 25-5.

Well, make that 25-6, as the Great Danes made some history of their own, with a game-turning 15-4 run in the six minutes immediately following Rowley’s departure. The spurt was capped by Hooley making his final two shots — a tough, driving layup through traffic and then a step-back 3-pointer, to put Albany up, 61-56, with 1:04 left.

Stony Brook never recovered from that point, and Brown found himself back on the ladder, once again, with scissors in hand, aimed at the net his team shot at during the second half, with the scoreboard in the background confirming an improbable 69-60 victory for Albany.

Thus, the team that was the last to win consecutive America East titles (2006-07), was also the next to do so. Only this time, the Great Danes, who became the lowest seed in the league to win the conference tournament last year — when they won as a four seed on top-seeded Vermont’s home floor — once again ousted top-seeded Vermont as a four seed (in the semifinals) this March, before taking down Stony Brook.

Brown divulged, “I had four or five Stony Brook fans come up to me and say, ‘Coach, thank you for beating Vermont. Thank you!’ I bit my tongue and inside I’m thinking, ‘Say that to me after this game.’ We weren’t happy to be here. We came here to win. These kids [and]… my assistants prepared like champions… we were ready and we wanted this badly.”

To the Great Danes’ credit, they played like it, even after a poor start began to shake Brown’s faith just a little.

“I liked the way we warmed up,” Brown said. “One team was shooting 3s from 42 feet and dunking it… and my team was just straight and narrow, just focused.”

Yet, Albany still found itself down, 9-0, after three minutes. So, it helped when Hooley reminded his coach of how last year’s title game started.

After Brown called a timeout to stem the Seawolves’ momentum, his best player offered some much-needed solace.

“Hooley runs right by me and says, ‘Coach, don’t worry, we were down 10-0 at Vermont,’” Brown said.

Earlier, Brown added, “As I was marching up and down the sideline today with every Stony Brook basket, [assistant coach] Jeremy Friel kept saying to me, even when I wasn’t uptight, ‘Coach, relax. We’re going to be fine.’ I probably heard that about 50 times today… my kids, I’m proud of them, and my assistants, for keeping me calm and also keeping the guys calm… my assistant coaches did a tremendous job of taking the most impatient head coach in the country and getting him to settle down a little bit these past few weeks, and to relax.”

Still, Brown’s patience was tested with a few Seawolves runs. But each time, his resilient Great Danes responded.

Down by those nine points at the start, Albany scored the next 10, to trigger a 20-5 run, and lead, 20-14.

In the second half, Stony Brook ran off 10 straight points of its own, to move ahead, 44-38 — only to have Rowley cap an 8-0 run which put the Great Danes back on top, 46-44, just 35 seconds before he picked up his fourth foul, with 8:07 left.

Rowley came out, but Brown put him back in, just 47 seconds later, after the Seawolves scored the next seven points, to go up, 51-46. Only 18 seconds after that, Rowley was called for his fifth and final foul while battling for a loose ball.

“It became obvious I couldn’t leave him out very long, so I rolled the dice and I put Sam back in there,” Brown said. “We needed his offense, and if he fouled out with six or seven minutes to go, then maybe it wasn’t meant to be.”

While his gamble didn’t pay off, Brown’s guidance did.

Even without Rowley, Albany never lost faith. And neither did Rowley.

“I just look at our guys and every player that was on the court had experience playing in a final,” Rowley said. “Everybody knew that we needed to make a run at that time if we were going to win the game and they just executed. I had so much faith and trust in the guys that were on the court… and the results speak for themselves. “

Adding to those thoughts, Brown said, “We [had] five guys on the floor down the stretch that played in the America East Conference Championship Game last year, that played in the NCAA tournament. If I can’t trust those guys to fight, scrape and claw, who can I trust?”

Sure enough, Stony Brook was held to just one field goal over the next 5½ minutes, a jumper (by its second-leading scorer, guard Carson Puriefoy) that kept the Seawolves within 58-56 with 1:30 to play.

“I was having the Puriefoy shakes,” Brown said of his restless night before the game. “He’s quicker than quick.”

Twenty-six seconds later, Hooley hit his big 3-pointer to finally give Albany the breathing room it needed.

“At the most important time, he stepped up and made a big 3,” Brown said of Hooley, before revealing a personal note about his star player’s perseverance. 

“One of the reasons I’m so proud of him is… [his] mother is very ill [and] his father had a bad accident on the farm last week,” Brown said. “[His father] had major surgery. With all those distractions, the way he played… his parents were supposed to be here… it says a lot about the young man, his toughness.”

Something that Brown told Hooley earlier in the week also helped him.

“I said, ‘If you hit a 3, how much is it worth?’ And he’d say. ‘3.’ Then I said, ‘If they hit a 3, how much is it worth?’ And he’d say, ‘3.’ So, I said, don’t worry about all of those people in the crowd (Stony Brook fans) getting excited.”

Another Australian native that Brown was proud of was senior forward senior Devlin, an America East All-Rookie Team selection who has since been plagued by injury.

Devlin posted only two points and three rebounds in 26 minutes on Saturday, but his leadership was undeniable.

Luke Devlin, love the kid,” Brown said. “[He] hasn’t been healthy since his freshman year… he grabbed those guys every timeout and screamed at them that, ‘We are winning this game!’ Today, I let Luke talk before I talked. Luke grew up a lot these past few weeks. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel. This was it for him. That kid can barely walk. He practiced probably once a week, and these last two or three weeks, he was going every day for us. I’m glad that he was able to be on the court and help us finish the job today.”

Speaking more on practice, Brown said that earlier in the week, he reluctantly went against the grain to try to keep his team from feeling some inevitable tournament pressure.

“We were working on 3-point shots off our knees, bounce shots from the 3-point line, sky hooks from the 3-point line, as we incorporated that into our shooting drills as we started practice,” Brown said.

“Our bigs would shoot against our guards, and obviously, our guards are better shooters, especially when they’re shooting 3s. But to win the drill, you’d have to make a backwards 3 over your head or a bounced 3, so that gave the bigs a chance. And they really came together. They had a lot of fun with it. And that was tough for me to do, because that’s how we were starting practice. I didn’t want them to be too loose, but they embraced it.”

Still, there’s the right balance that needs to be struck between playing loose and playing tough.

“To win a championship, it comes down to toughness plays, the little things,” Brown said. “We didn’t want to be a frontrunner team — when you’re making shots, everything else is good. We wanted to be that tough, hard-nosed team that’s going to give a workmanlike effort. You’re going to have to beat us. We’re not going to beat ourselves.”

And when it came time to fight through more adversity with everything stacked against them, the Great Danes recalled their coach’s sound advice.

“One message I told these guys is, ‘Regardless of the score, regardless of the atmosphere, stay the course. Weather the storm.’” Brown said. “The closer this game was, later in the game, the tighter I thought they would be, and the more relaxed and loose I thought we would be.”

Extra attention to detail in preparation aided with that effort.

Senior guard D.J. Evans (who scored 16 points, 12 in the opening half), said, “In practice we had speakers set up, just because we knew it was going to be loud today, and just a lot of hand motions and flash cards. I’ve just got to give it to the coaches. They did a good job preparing us for this game.”

Ultimately, though, Brown a Long Island native from nearby Miller Place, N.Y., credited his players while reflecting on closing Pritchard Gymnasium with a title as a visiting coach many years after he used to play there.

“A lot of credit goes to these kids,” he said. “I didn’t score a point, I didn’t get a rebound and I didn’t block a shot. I have scored a lot of baskets in this gym, though. That was a long time ago, back in the day, when I was looking for a pickup game, I’d come on over here, when they had three courts going across, a long time ago.”

While Brown remains fond of those memories, there are other things about the area that he still longs for, and one thing he’s happy to forget.

“My deli sandwich and my pizza that I’m going to eat on the bus ride home are going to taste so much better,” he said. “That’s what I miss about Long Island — delis, pizza, bagels. I don’t miss the traffic, but winning here is special because it was a championship and because not too many teams win here.”

Delis and pizza for yet another taste of a conference title?

Seems like a good trade for Coach Brown.

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