UAlbany women’s basketball will return tournament team next season

The University at Albany women’s basketball team ended its season as a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament, falling to one-seed Louisville in the first round. 

The game came a week after UAlbany’s first America East championship since 2017.

This season set the high water mark of coach Colleen Mullen’s four years leading the Great Danes, but the team isn’t done yet.

With seniors Ellen Hahne and Lucia Decortes both planning to return and use their extra year of eligibility granted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Danes will run it back next season.

“To come to March Madness, I think that really pushes us to raise our goals, raise our standards and just come back even more hungry and get more next year,” Hahne said after the loss to Louisville. 

Decortes was a crucial post presence, leading the conference in blocks with 44. Her last appearance was in UAlbany’s conference semifinal against Vermont; she played just two minutes before leaving in obvious pain.

Mullen said Sunday that Decortes will stay in a boot for the next six weeks with a stress reaction in her left leg. Stress reactions can develop into stress fractures if left untreated.

UAlbany was picked fifth in the America East preseason coaches’ poll after a fourth-place 5-7 conference record last season. The Great Danes exceeded those expectations, finishing third in the conference with a 13-5 record. They earned the No. 2 seed in the tournament because second-place Stony Brook was not eligible.

UAlbany’s 23-10 record is Mullen’s first winning record as a head coach. 

“This was our first winning season in four years, and they really bought into this four-year plan, this gradual plan, of doing things the right way,” Mullen said. “And now they’ve been able to reap the benefits of all their hard work.” 

“I’m very very proud of what we’ve done because it hasn’t been always good stuff, we’ve had our ups and downs for sure,” Hahne said.

After ending last season with a loss at Maine in the America East semifinals, the Great Danes came out with a chip on their shoulders.

They started 3-0 in the America East despite a COVID-19 pause that delayed the start of their conference schedule, but lost at Hartford, then 0-13. UAlbany also lost to rivals Stony Brook and Vermont on the road and were swept by regular-season champion Maine. 

The second loss to Maine was UAlbany’s only home loss of the season. The team was 16-1 at SEFCU Arena. Mullen also built a punishing defense that allowed the second fewest points in the country (48.6). 

“Throughout this entire season we’ve shown how good we are. And I think with every game we’ve gotten so much better,” sophomore Kayla Cooper said.

Cooper emerged as a standout after UAlbany’s COVID-19 pause gave her the opportunity to start. She finished as the team’s second-best scorer with 11.2 points per game, behind junior Helene Haegerstrand’s 11.8 ppg.

UAlbany’s freshmen also played key roles, with Lilly Phillips starting at point guard and Freja Werth going 4-for-4 from 3-point range in the quarterfinal to help UAlbany hold off New Hampshire. Koi Sims had six points in 14 minutes against Louisville.

“Having a freshman class like that that understands their roles, bought into their roles, plays a part in the culture, and that’s very exciting for the next three years,” Mullen said.

Winning a conference championship and playing in the NCAA Tournament counts as a successful season by almost any measure, but Cooper said the Great Danes aren’t satisfied.

“We went home last year and we worked really hard and we worked individually on our goals, and I think going into this summer we’re going to do the same thing and come back even better,” she said.