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UAlbany Coach Colleen Mullen leads Great Danes against No. 1 Louisville in return to NCAA tourney

The UAlbany women's basketball team learns it will face Louisville in the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
University at Albany screengrab
The UAlbany women's basketball team learns it will face Louisville in the NCAA Tournament on Friday.

Almost exactly four years ago, here’s what Colleen Mullen told reporters as she was introduced as the new University at Albany women’s basketball coach:

"My first order of business is just these players. Knowing that these student-athletes are my priority...to build relationships with them, to know that I care about them, for them to get to know me and my family, and to start building that trust."

Now Mullen and Great Danes are dancing for the first time together and seventh time in school history.

UAlbany defeated Maine for the first time in 12 tries last week, ending the Black Bears’ 14-game winning streak to win the America East championship.

It won’t get any easier from here: UAlbany faces top-seeded Louisville in the NCAA tournament Friday evening.

What have the past few days been like for you and your program?

It's been amazing. It's been a whirlwind. It's been exciting. And I'm just so thrilled for our staff and certainly for our players.

When you came in as head coach, you said you thought this would be about a four-year project to get to the dance. So you're right on schedule, right?

Yes, I am.

How were you able to do it?

Yeah. And by the way, throw in a global pandemic there, which throws a little loop in everything. But, you know, I think when I first got the job here, there was a lot of turnover with the coaches going on to great success. Coach Abe, five championships. Coach Bernabei-McNamee, a championship, and just a standard. But you know, there was a lot of graduation, some players that were supposed to be here decided to transfer. So players that were here were kind of left with, ‘Oh, I've had, you know, three coaches in two years.’

We just focused on building relationships, getting those players better, player development, building trust, and getting them to buy into our vision for the future of the program. And then our staff and myself, we focus on recruiting high character young people that wanted to put the team before themselves, that were talented, they had a lot of talent, but at the end of the day, did all the things that that take no talent, meaning hard working, you know, great teammate, unselfish, just a great work ethic, and putting that together and continuing to recruit players like that, you know, buying into the culture. This is the outcome of that.

Obviously, you've had a great season and you won 23 games. Was there a point with this particular group where you thought it might come together and end in the NCAA Tournament?

I hoped from the beginning of the year, and starting in August, they made a goal to be champions and to be in a position to be in the championship game and ultimately accomplish their goal that they set in August, that was really special. But I think the Stony Brook game certainly was a was a turning point for this program, where a 16-point come-from-behind fourth quarter effort to win in the fashion that we did really propelled this team and gave them so much confidence. And that really just led us into playing our best basketball and you always want to play your best basketball going into the tournament, and that confidence certainly led us to have that steady, steady focus in the Maine game to pull the upset on their home court.

OK, well, let's talk about that game last Friday. As I mentioned in the introduction, it's been a while since you all had beaten Maine and you had to go do it in their building. They were the No. 1 seed but your team led wire to wire. How did you do it?

Yeah, I mean, I think the players just had a really amazing, amazing focus. They played together as a team. They came out we had a terrific first quarter where we were really shooting the ball well, and, you know, in a championship game like this, you really need to have some performances. And we certainly had that in Morgan Haney in the first half 16 points, you know, she only averages 6, and Ellen Hahne in the second, but when we came out strong like that, that gave us a lot of confidence. And we know we have a good defense, you know, right now, our defense is rated second in the country. But it's been scoring that's been kind of difficult for us. So coming out scoring those 20 points, I think that really just allowed us to settle in and then we just controlled the whole way. Maine is a team that's just so dangerous. They're so talented at every position. They have the player of the year and the defensive player of the year, Anne Simon, and a really good player named Maeve Carroll inside. So we knew we were going to have to play for 40 minutes, and they can score in bunches, they can shoot 3s. We weathered those storms, we stayed together, we stayed the course, they executed an amazing game plan, you know, to a T. And you know, they certainly earned this win.

In Maine, Maine did make one of those runs that you're talking about, rattled off a bunch of points late when they needed to, and it felt like it might go the other way for a minute or two, at least watching it as an outsider. What does it say to you about the team that you didn't buckle given all the pressure of that situation?

Yeah, I mean, it just shows the grittiness, the composure and the confidence our team has. And, you know, credit Maine, they had that really great run, they were turning us over with their pressure. But we made big plays, Ellen Hahne had two big shots, the big 3 she had at the end, we had an offensive board on a free throw. But everybody just did their job. And we knew that the run was coming, we knew that the momentum was on their side. But our players just kept their composure, they stuck with the game plan. They played together, they didn't hang their heads. And I just couldn't be more proud of them.

Now, Maine is one thing, but you've gotta go to Louisville and play Louisville in its home building. How do you get ready for that game?

Yeah, I mean, this is a very, very athletic team, I mean, one of the best teams in the country. Beating their ACC opponents by 15 points per game. So certainly, you know, very, very high level players, multiple WNBA prospects on their team. And 1 seed. So you know, top four teams in the country. When you go in and prepare for a team like this, you really have to be focused, you have to have a specific game plan for us to provide the players so that they feel comfortable. We gotta be able to handle their pressure. And just control the tempo. We need to slow the game down. Louisville wants to score in transition, they want to score off second chances, you know, defensively, they're going to pressure us. So we just need to play our game, stay composed, which we did at Maine. And, you know, just focus on us, focus on doing the things that we know that we're capable of. And hopefully, we'll have, you know, a lot of great performances from our players.

Are you drawing on any upsets from history to show the team or to talk about getting into the mindset of knocking off a No. 1? How are you coaching them this week?

I think right now, we haven't gotten in the nitty gritty of the scout of Louisville. We’ve just been kind of sticking with, you know, the general ideas of what we need to do, of handling their pressure, boxing out, you know, offensive execution. And we'll be getting into all that nitty gritty, but at the end of the day, right now, what they need to do is believe and every single one of our players needs to believe that we could shock the world and have the upset. It's happened before. In 1998 Harvard upset Stanford, and ironically, we watched a video in the middle of the year about Stanford's run to the national championship in 1990 when we were talking about becoming champions.

We will be talking about that upset and I think at the end of the day, you just have to go in there confidently, believing that you can win and playing your game and keeping your composure and oh, by the way, you gotta have fun. We gotta be in the moment, enjoy being on this national stage, having the opportunity to showcase all their hard work, everything that they've put into, they've earned this and I'm just so thrilled for them.

Lastly, you know, if things are gonna go well for your team — for people who haven't watched you before, but maybe will be tuning in for the first time on Friday when you're in the NCAA Tournament, what should they watch for? If things are working well for the University at Albany, what does it look like?

When things are working well we're playing together, we're sharing the ball/ I think that players to watch really are Helene Haegerstrand, she's our junior, face up trail post who can really shoot the 3, she's great inside. Really fun player to watch because can really shoot the ball. Kayla Cooper inside, undersized post, really athletic, great rebounder. Just terrific around the basket, crafty, plays bigger than she is. And really, really explosive, so fun to watch as well. And then Helen Hahne and Morgan Haney are two other guards that are just really dynamic. They can score on all three levels. And both are terrific defenders. So I think if you see us playing well, it's coming from our defense, our offense is coming from our defense, we're getting stops. We're limiting them to one shot, we're forcing Louisville into contested outside shots. And then we're finishing it with a box out. And then offensively, we're taking care of the ball. We're breaking the pressure with confidence. We're moving the ball side to side, we're gonna make Louisville defend us. And then working for a good shot.

Do you have a point total you think you need to hold the Cardinals to?

Yeah, I think that our goal is usually to hold teams under 55 points. And I think if we can hold Louisville to 60, that would be really great. Even below 60 would be more fabulous. But our focus, I mean, as low as possible, essentially. But you know, it's a team that average is 75 points a game in conference, and, strong, extremely strong, offensive output. So to hold a team like that to 60 points, you're putting yourself in a position to have a chance.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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