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Hooley's Heroics Lift UAlbany To NCAAs; Oklahoma Next

The NCAA Tournament field was unveiled last night, and Capital Region fans rejoiced to see the University at Albany men’s basketball team in the bracket for a third straight year. But before they could enjoy Selection Sunday, the Great Danes barely survived Saturday.

With a perfect 4-0 record in America East championship games and hosting for the first time in nine years, UAlbany seemed to have an edge on Stony Brook Saturday morning. But that quickly disappeared. Nerves? Poor execution? Whatever it was, the Great Danes had one of their worst shooting performances of the whole season, trailed at halftime and found themselves down by seven with about 1:40 left to go.

Shots were bouncing out. Fans were getting restless. And dreams of another title were slipping away.

In a small conference like the America East, only the champ gets invited to the NCAA tourney, and it looked like the end of the line for the two-time defending champs.

Until Peter Hooley got his hands on the ball.

It was the kind of March moment the sport is built on. Stony Brook players could only hold their heads, as the Seawolves went down in the championship game for the fourth time in five years.

As soon as it went in, you knew Hooley was going to be an international star for the next 24 hours, and sure enough, he was a trending topic on Twitter and SportsCenter’s top play. A day later, even after UAlbany learned it will play third-seeded Oklahoma Friday in Columbus in the NCAAs, it still hadn’t really sunk in for the junior guard.

"It's been hectic. The Twitter feed has been nuts," Hooley said. "My phone dies quicker than it's ever died before. That's cool, and it just shows that you're touching some people out there and that's really all I could ask for with all of this."

By now, the Australian’s story has gone around the world, as the rest of college basketball makes what is now an annual check-in on UAlbany. Here was a clutch scorer with a quick smile and storied career — already —  who left the team to be with his mom this winter in the final days of her fight against colon cancer.

But a funny thing happened when UAlbany lost its leading scorer for eight games during conference play: the Great Danes kept winning, all the way through the conference tournament and Saturday’s stunner, when Hooley’s swish brought thousands of fans and students to an impromptu dance party on the SEFCU Arena floor.

"That's something you dream of as a kid and that's something I'll remember the rest of my life," Hooley said. "All my family back home, they gotta stop crying so I can actually talk to them eventually. But no, it's amazing, and I'm so glad for this team that they can experience it."

As relieved as the 14th-seeded Great Danes might be to still be alive, on Sunday in the arena’s Hall of Fame room, it was time to refocus on what promises to be the 24-8 team’s greatest challenge all year.

As is always the case for the little guy in March Madness, the numbers aren’t on UAlbany’s side.  America East teams are only 2-17 all-time against Oklahoma’s Big 12 conference, and the Sooners were No. 15 in the last top 25 poll.

On the other hand, 18 14-seeds have won their opening round game, and in three of their four trips to the Dance, the Great Danes have hung with Goliath, be it UConn, Duke or Florida. Senior Sam Rowley, also from UAlbany’s Down Under pipeline, says the team is confident it will bounce back from the 51-50 nail-biter against Stony Brook.

He’ll be playing in his third NCAA tournament.

"It helps in some of those other factors, the other variables that come into play: the crowd and not getting too caught up in the moment," Rowley said. "At the end of the day we're there to win a game of basketball, we're not there just to experience the NCAA Tournament, so I think keeping focus in that sense, the experience does help, absolutely."

This marks UAlbany coach Will Brown’s fifth trip to the NCAAs in 14 seasons. In 2006, when UAlbany made its debut against top-seeded UConn, Brown used “Why Not Us” as the team’s motto and famously packed two suits in case the Great Danes shocked the world. A night owl who has seen Oklahoma play several times this year, Brown says UAlbany faces a steep challenge this time too.

"We're very fortunate to have this opportunity, you need to embrace it and run with it," Brown said. "You never know when you're gonna go back or if you're gonna go back, so I think we need to really enjoy this, but we also need to realize we have a lot of work to do. This is a team that none of our players are familiar with, coaching staff's not familiar with. I sleep maybe four hours a night, so I've probably seen about 10 of their games."

UAlbany and Oklahoma tip off around 7:30 Friday night. Meanwhile, the UAlbany women’s basketball team is heading to its fourth-straight tournament and learns its opponent tonight at 7.

Neither team will be favored to win, but as Hooley’s game-winning 3-pointer proved, anything’s possible in March.

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