Danes dance valiantly, fall to Duke 73-61
By Joe Alicata
Less than one week after a hard fought win in the America East championship game against the Vermont Catamounts, the University at Albany Great Danes found themselves competing in their third NCAA tournament against a collegiate basketball powerhouse as UAlbany (15) squared off against the Duke Blue Devils (2) in the second round of the NCAA tournament at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Duke came out swinging, opening up an 8-2 lead with a three from Seth Curry, brother of NBA star Steph Curry and son of NBA great Dell Curry, and free throws from senior Mason Plumlee. UAlbany would respond, pulling to within four with just over thirteen minutes to play in the first half with Peter Hooley dropping in a trey and Luke Devlin converting a lay in opportunity.
After the initial run by Duke, UAlbany kept the game close for the remainder of the first half, playing the hard-nosed and gritty defense which carried them to the tournament. At the end of the half, Duke took a nine point lead into the locker room
Despite the presence of resident freak athlete Mason Plumlee and sharp shooting big man Ryan Kelly, the Danes enjoyed reasonable success moving the ball, driving to the basket and creating open shots including a 9-for-15 performance from downtown. In their final games for UAlbany, Jacob Iati and Mike Black pitched in 15 and 10 points respectively, with Iati converting 3-of-4 from downtown. Devlin was once again strong off the bench pitching in 9 points on 4-for-5 shooting, while Hooley again came up big adding 13 points and 8 rebounds.
Hooley canned a three to start the second half, cutting the Duke lead to six, before the Blue Devils grew their lead to 14 on an 8-2 run with 18:21 to go. After an Albany timeout, Iati drilled a three, only to have Curry respond with a three of his own. Following the three from Curry, Duke would enjoy a double digit lead for much of the second half, leading by as much as 16.
Despite the onslaught by the Blue Devils, the Danes would not fold and continued to fight throughout, fighting for rebounds, diving for loose balls and playing with grit. With 6:11 to play, Hooley drained a three to cut the Duke lead to 10. John Puk then changed the momentum of the game with a blocked shot, leading to two Iati free throws which cut the Duke lead to eight with 4:40 to go.
Then came the pivotal loose ball; “The loose ball was probably the biggest play of the game” said Iati. “I thought I was going to get it, and right before I did, Plumlee tipped it a little bit and then it ricocheted off me right to Curry.” Coach Will Brown underscored the importance of that loose ball, “Did you hear the Duke crowd on that loose ball? They erupted. We had them worried.”
Unfortunately for the Danes, the opportunity to cut the lead from 8 to 6 or even 5 vanished with a Seth Curry layup to push the Duke lead back to 10 which would prove to be the death knell for the Danes despite a Black three with 2:40 remaining. Duke would convert 3-of-5 free throws to secure the win and advance to the third round against Creighton on Sunday March 24.
Following the game, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski praised UAlbany and Coach Will Brown; “It was a good tough win for us today, we beat a team that was playing really well…we could never just put them away.” Coach K continued saying; “We get everyone’s best shot, this team wouldn’t quit because they are well coached and are champions…Albany was very well prepared but going forward it’s OK if no one shows up against us.”
Will Brown praised Duke’s performance as well; “Congratulations to Duke, I’ve said it all week long, in my opinion if Kelly is healthy they are the best team in the country.” Brown also commented on Plumlee’s dominance in the paint; “Plumlee did the best Kareem Abdul Jabbar imitation I’ve seen in a long time, he hit three sky hooks and I haven’t even seen someone attempt that shot in my twelve years at Albany and he hit three of them.”
Brown offered perhaps the best summation of the entire game, outcome and experience; “Jacob Iati is going to work for JP Morgan next year and Mason Plumlee is going to the NBA… I’m proud of my guys we’re a resilient group, a tough group, I think they made an awful lot of people proud. I can sit here and comfortably say, you know, we challenged Duke, we made them work, we made Duke beat us.”
The Great Danes finish the season as Champions of the America East, becoming the lowest seed (4) to ever do so. The Danes totaled 24 wins to set the program’s Division I record, and made UAlbany’s third NCAA tournament appearance, their first since 2007.