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Oklahoma ends MBB season in NCAA Tournament

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By Aaron Cheris

Sports Editor

[email protected]

March 22, 2015

Photo by Aaron Cheris.  Sam Rowley couldn't win the opening tip in his final college game.
Photo by Aaron Cheris.
Sam Rowley couldn’t win the opening tip in his final college game.

Playing on the national stage against a bigger and stronger opponent, the University at Albany men’s basketball team looked for the kind of upset that makes the NCAA Tournament in March one of America’s best sports events.

Unfortunately for the Great Danes, their dreams of an upset will have to wait until next season.

The 14-seedeed Great Danes battled for all 40 minutes, but weren’t good enough, as 3-seed Oklahoma ended UAlbany’s season with a 69-60 win on Friday night at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

“Oklahoma is the better basketball team. We only needed to be the better basketball team for one night,” UAlbany coach Will Brown said. “We weren’t tonight. So the better team won tonight.”

From the opening tip, it was clear the Great Danes (24-9) had their hands full with the bigger Sooners (23-10). 6-foot-8 senior TaShawn Thomas led the way for the Sooners, causing problems down low for the Great Danes.

On consecutive possessions in the game’s opening minutes, Thomas threw down a dunk over the Great Danes defense then grabbed an offensive rebound and made a layup to give the Sooners an early lead.

“It was exactly what we expected,” UAlbnay forward Sam Rowley said of Thomas and the Sooners big men. “We knew they were not just physical. They were tough and they were pretty skilled. So we were battling down there for the whole game.”

UAlbany wouldn’t let this one get away from them though. After Thomas scored, Evan Singletary cut into the Oklahoma lead with a layup of his own. Following another Sooners basket, Peter Hooley made a 3-pointer from the corner to send the UAlbany fans to their feet.

The back and forth battle continued for most of the night. Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield dunked for the Sooners, only to be answered on the other end by a running layup from Hooley.

Minutes later, UAlbany’s 6-foot-11 center Richard Peters had a shot blocked by Thomas, one of four on the night for him. Thomas got a taste of his own medicine less than two minutes later as Sam Rowley blocked his layup attempt for UAlbany’s only block of the night.

“I felt coming in there was a chance we were going to be overmatched physically and athletically, especially in the frontcourt,” Brown said. “But again, I thought we hung around.”

Less than a week after making the game winning 3-pointer against Stony Brook in the conference championship, Hooley came out strong in the first half. He scored 12 of his team-high 15 points in the opening 20 minutes, including a second 3-pointer to cut the Sooners lead to two points.

“We always just hung around and we kept preaching to the guys, hang around and we’ll be ok,” Hooley said.

With about 10 seconds to go in the half, UAlbany got a 3-pointer from Ray Sanders to rattle in after hitting the rim multiple times. But the Sooners would take momentum into the locker room as Jordan Woodard made a layup as time expired to give his team a 37-28 halftime lead.

The second half was more of the same for both teams. Hooley and Sam Rowley each scored in the first minute to give the fans in purple and gold something to cheer about, but the Sooners wouldn’t be rattled.

Sanders and Hield traded 3-pointers early in the second half as UAlbany got close, but not quite close enough.

“Every time we seemed to get close, it seemed like they made a shot to hold us back a little bit,” Sam Rowley said. “But to beat these teams you need to play nearly a perfect game, and unfortunately we didn’t do that tonight.”

On the defensive end, Mike Rowley struggled to guard Thomas and Ryan Spangler, and he quickly got into foul trouble and had to sit on the bench before eventually fouling out. In his absence, freshman Grieg Stire played 17 minutes.

“I mean, it’s hard,” Brown said about the adjustments his team had to make without Mike Rowley on the floor. “We had to win this game. We had to ride the horses. Mike fouled out. Grieg had to play extended minutes.”

As the final buzzer got closer, the Great Danes made one last attempt to tie the score. With less than four minutes to go, Singletary made a 3-pointer to cut the Sooners lead to six points, and the Great Danes needed a stop on defense.

On the next Sooners possession, the Great Danes played stifling defense. But Isaiah Cousins wouldn’t let that get in his way. With Sanders guarding him and the shot clock winding down, Cousins put the final nail in UAlbany’s coffin with a deep 3-pointer to end any hope of a Great Danes comeback.

“I would have liked to have had the opportunity to see what happened if Cousins missed that shot,” Brown said. “We would have had the ball in our hands and off to the races.”

The Sooners were led by 18 points by Thomas and 15 from Hield. Spangler had 11 rebounds to lead all players.

For UAlbany, 4 of 5 starters scored at least 10 points. Sanders led the way with seven rebounds to go with his 11 points. Singletary finished with 12 in his first NCAA Tournament game and Sam Rowley had 12 in his final college game.

When the final buzzer sounded, Sam Rowley and Hooley hugged, as this was their last college game together. Sam Rowley will graduate in May.

“These are guys that I’ll be friends with forever,” Sam Rowley said. “And Pete is just, he’s my best friend. So it’s as simple as that. It was a special moment for me.”

Sam Rowley’s absence is sure to be felt, but coach Brown is going to savor every moment he has left with him.

“There’s not a finer representative of our conference, of our university and our program, than Sam Rowley,” Brown said. “I’ll continue to become a smarter coach and smarter man just hanging around Sam.”

Photo by Aaron Cheris. Coach Will Brown's team couldn't pull off the upset on Friday.
Photo by Aaron Cheris.
Coach Will Brown’s team couldn’t pull off the upset on Friday.

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