STONY BROOK, N.Y. – A poke in the eye? No problem for Peter Hooley and Albany. To be honest, they’ve had to overcome a little more than that. In fact, Hooley himself has had something worse happen recently.
So when the sophomore guard hit a tough runner with less than two minutes to go, then buried a big three-pointer a minute later to help Albany pull out a 69-60 win in the America East championship game, it was perhaps not a surprise. It also went with how he played in the tournament, although he wasn’t as big a factor on Saturday as he was last weekend.
The Great Danes looked like they could be in trouble with 7:02 left in the game. Sam Rowley, who had a phenomenal game up to that point with 18 points on 9-11 shooting to go with five rebounds, three assists and four steals, fouled out on what looked like a call that could go either way. The Great Danes trailed by five, and a free throw from the foul made it six.
“I was worried, no doubt,” said head coach Will Brown. “We were running a lot of our offense through Sam.”
Said Rowley of what he thought as he headed to the bench: “I was looking at our guys. Every player that was on the court had experience of playing in a final. Everybody knew that we needed to make a run at that time if we were going to win the game. I have so much faith and trust in the guys that were on the court.”
That faith was rewarded, and Hooley was a big part of that along with big man John Puk, the latter of whom Brown said was “awesome in the last five minutes of the game.” Hooley’s parents were supposed to be at Saturday’s game, coming up from Australia. That didn’t happen because his mother is very ill and his father had a very bad accident on the farm, which required major surgery. It’s fair to say he probably had bigger things than basketball on his mind on Saturday, but you wouldn’t know it from his grace under pressure.
“The way he played says a lot about the young man and his toughness,” said Brown, who guided the Great Danes to their fourth America East title and has never lost in the championship game.
Albany had an up-and-down season, struggling to put much momentum together until late in the season. That’s largely because they had a rash of injuries over the course of the season that left them without key players practicing for long stretches. Rowley didn’t practice for a lot of the first month and a half of conference play, Hooley’s shoulder popped out twice during that time, and Luke Devlin wasn’t practicing after he underwent an epidural some time before that.
All of that added to the challenge in games since they didn’t get to play together, and the results reflect it. They had a couple of two-game winning streaks, then finally won three straight to close February. Now they have won three in a row to go dancing, and it’s no accident.
For that matter, it was one of the more perennially banged-up Great Danes, Devlin, who was a big part of keeping this team mentally in the game. Every timeout, he told them they were winning this game, and he talked to them before the coaches did. Devlin hasn’t been healthy since he was an All-Rookie selection three years ago, and has barely practiced all year. He’s given all he has and then some, and Saturday was one more reward for that. His stat line showing he played 26 minutes, scoring two points with three rebounds and a blocked shot, greatly understates his contribution to this championship.
Brown said he saw this team not only get healthier, but also tougher as the season wore on. He and the staff had told them many times that they were too nice on the court, and while they have made his job easier, for the most part, they didn’t have the necessary sense of urgency.
That urgency showed up on Saturday, as well as the experience. Even point guard D.J. Evans, who played sparingly last year, showed it as he controlled the game from the point guard spot. He got them going in the first half, when Hooley wasn’t playing well and Stony Brook played well to start. Evans had to wait his turn and did just that, before going on to win like he’s done at other levels.
Albany reflected their coach, a guy who scored a lot of points in Pritchard Gymnasium – the site of Saturday’s game – while growing up. Brown took over this program during its early days in Division I and has built it into one America East’s most successful programs since they joined. Having already won three titles, including two on the road, he knew how the game would go in terms of having to overcome in-game adversity and who the pressure would be on. By yesterday, what this team had thrown at them was comparatively easy to handle.