The road to the 2014 NCAA Tournament: It's tough to beat a team that plays with heart

Aussie sophomore Peter Hooley who plays hoops and studies journalism at the University at Albany has joined #TeamPnR and will be providing his personal insights and views into college life and all things hoops.

What a year it was.

The term ‘roller coaster’ would be an understatement to describe the season as we went from the defending champion to experiencing an identity crisis, stealing a couple of games on the road, to losing the unthinkable. And then when everyone had counted us out, we turned on the switch, coming away with another championship.

For the first time in a long time, our season started with arguably one of the biggest games of the year – The Albany Cup; our yearly game versus our biggest capital region rival, Siena. This is a game that divides the town and provides a great atmosphere for the whole capital region to enjoy. We managed to retain the cup for the second straight year in a tough first hit out for our new team.

The non-conference schedule was very up and down as we really struggled to get off to a good start in any game and it hurt us in the end. We often found ourselves crawling back in the second half but always falling short; it was something that cost us quite a few games. Our home game against Bucknell late in November revealed our kryptonite – the three-point line. They made 10 three's in the first half alone and finished with 15 for the game! It was a point of emphasis in practice from there on to defend the three-point line. We finished the non-conference with a record of 6-7 after losing a close game at Pittsburgh on New Years Eve.

We felt confident going into the conference schedule that we would be able to win a lot of games if we managed to put 40 solid minutes together. We came out firing on all cylinders against Hartford in the conference opener hitting a program record 16 triples. For a team who relies on layups and getting to the free throw line, it was a great sign to see us do what everyone thought we couldn’t and make outside shots consistently. After a hard fought double overtime win against UMBC, we headed back to Burlington, Vermont for a rematch of the American East Championship game. We expected a hostile environment and that is just what we received. We struggled to get going at all and suffered a 30-point blowout loss. It brought us back down to earth quickly as we realized nothing was going to be handed to us this year and that every team was going to give us their best shot, after all we were the defending champions.

This game started one of the two big holes in our conference season, and was mainly due to injuries. We suffered five injuries in the Vermont game and a couple of real bad ones to key members of the team. The day before the UMass Lowell game, we had seven players practicing, so the assistant coaches laced them up just to give us numbers to get through some scout and plays. We lost in overtime to Lowell and that is when the doubt from outside the locker room really started to echo around us all.

“These guys just don’t have it this year”

“There’s no way they make it out of the first round come the conference tournament.”

I say outside the locker room because for the 14 guys playing, we always believed we could win it all. Because when it comes down to it, you need to win three games at the start of March, and you’re a champion. Plus, we were hosting the conference tournament again, so it was important we stamped our authority that no one was beating us at home.

After a loss at New Hampshire, who had struggled all year, it was evident there was something going on in the team. We called a players only meeting to discuss what was happening, and from the moment we stepped on the practice floor the following day, everyone could see a difference. Attitudes were great, emotions were level and there was production on both ends of the floor. Our upcoming game against Stony Brook was all or nothing for us. If we lost, our season was going to spiral out of control so we had to win. It was as simple as that, win or it’s done. And we did just that! In earning a great win, it helped solidify a new team identity and suddenly we knew we were back on track.

Just as we began to get things going along nicely a debacle struck the team again as we struggled to close out very winnable games and continued to lose on the road. We desperately needed momentum leading in to the conference tournament as even though we knew it was on our home court, we weren’t going to win just by showing up. Two more losses back-to-back, one at Hartford and one at UMBC on a last second tip-in really shook us around. Just when we thought things were getting back on the right track, our train derailed and everything came falling down. The coaches didn’t know what was wrong but it was nothing they could control, it was all on us.

Another players only team meeting was the final straw for us as we neared the end of the season. We knew exactly what we were capable of as a unit and if we were all healthy, then good things could happen.

Now it came down to this, three possible games left in the season, and it was win or go home. It was as simple as that. Our quarterfinal game against a shorthanded UMBC is where we began to gain some momentum. A 30-point victory appeared to provide us with a lot of confidence ahead of taking on our old rival Vermont in the semi-final. A four seed against a one seed, the same story as the previous season and it was looking like the stars were once again aligning. As a team we arguably delivered the best and most consistent effort across 40 minutes for the whole season in knocking off the regular season champions to make it back to the Championship game for the second straight year.

But could the stars really align perfectly again? We never doubted they couldn’t.

Championship Saturday at a hostile Stony Brook gymnasium set the scene for history to repeat itself and it was almost the exact same script. They came out of the gates firing on all cylinders and in the blink of an eye we were down 9-0, just like we started last year’s championship game at Vermont down 10-0. But we maintained our composure, found our feet, and despite losing Sam Rowley to foul trouble with seven minutes to go, we managed to go into the lion’s den and snatch a victory from seemingly nowhere. A year where no one thought we could be any good and we found ourselves back in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. It was time to put on our dancing shoes again.

The Aussies at Albany: 2014 America East Champions - Courtesy Peter Hooley

The most exciting time of the year for all sports fans, March Madness provided us with an opportunity to create history for our school and win it’s first game in the NCAA tournament. We were to face Mount St Mary’s in the first round to give the winner a chance at facing the overall number one seed, the red hot Florida Gators. The NCAA tournament is unlike any experience you’ll ever be apart of, and for a young country kid from a small Australian town, it is almost overwhelming.

The Great Danes in the NCAA tournament - Courtesy Peter Hooley

We played a talented Mount St Mary’s team who really lit it up from behind the arc as we knew they could, but we steadied the ship when needed and came away with the programs first ever NCAA tournament win, something that would put our names in the history books of UAlbany forever. Next, the Florida Gators.

What a tremendous opportunity we had in front of us. A dream come true, to be able to play against arguably the best team in the nation at that time and it proved a tough challenge from beginning to end. But just as we had done all season, through all the adversity of hearing people outside the locker room saying we had no chance and that we would lose by 50, we believed we were going to win. While we didn’t come away with the win, we fought valiantly and it was an honor to represent our university and city with pride, as we never gave up. Our fairy tale run through the last month of the season had finally come to an end, and it gave us the perfect chance to reflect on a season that no one could have predicted.

For the fourteen guys in that locker room, those memories will be one’s we will cherish forever. The ability to handle all adversity that was surrounding us and come out on top, the chance to quiet down those who doubted us and prove them wrong but ultimately, the memories of going into battle each game standing alongside brothers who you trusted and fought with day in and day out, will never be replaced. People only see what shows on the scoreboard, but for what went on from within our group towards the end of this season, was truly spectacular and remarkable. It’s tough to beat a team that plays with heart.

Peter will be providing regular content for #TeamPnR and you can also follow him on Twitter @PeterHooley12