DAYTON, Ohio -- There might be an executioner waiting for Albany, but staying alive for another couple days surely beats the alternative.
The Great Danes came out on fire and ultimately made all the plays they needed down the stretch to win the opening game of the NCAA tournament and set up a date with top-ranked Florida.
The Great Danes made an appearance in the tournament a year ago, and with an experienced group of veterans in the lineup, they showed no nerves early on the big stage. While the Mountaineers were struggling to find their stroke and turning the ball over on the perimeter, senior guard DJ Evans was hitting big shots, finishing at the rim and wreaking havoc defensively as Albany jumped out to a 19-point lead. The wide margin wouldn’t last, but handling the pressure wasn’t the problem.
Evans will have his hands full against the Gators, their suffocating defense and star guard Scottie Wilbekin. But if that doesn’t turn out to be memorable, he’ll have fond recollections of the all-around effort he turned in against Mount St. Mary’s, stuffing the stats sheet from all angles and sparking the huge run that opened the game. He finished with a game-high 22 points and added nine rebounds.
The lid wasn’t going to stay on the basket forever. And once the Mountaineers pried it off, their dedication to a trigger-happy approach started paying off midway through the opening half. In a deep hole after missing its first 11 shots, Mount St. Mary’s turned to Will Miller off the bench as it kept firing up 3-pointers; he knocked down three of them to spark an offense that rattled off an 18-0 run to climb back into the game. Albany tightened up its defense down the stretch and found a way to limit second-chance points by controlling the glass, which it will certainly have to do again in the next round.
The Great Danes faced some full-court pressure and aggressive defense from the Mountaineers, and for the most part they handled it well. That bit of practice might be helpful for Thursday, even if it paled in comparison to what the Gators will throw at them. One area to improve on quickly might be cutting down on the dribbling and spreading the ball around a little more, because getting caught by a Florida trap won’t be as easy to break without passing the ball.
Despite the quick turnaround, the Albany band and a vocal group of Mount St. Mary’s fans made for a lively atmosphere to open the tournament. The tie-dyed bunch of Great Danes chanted and brought signs along with them to support the America East champions, but like their team, they’ll need to step it up even more when they head into Florida’s backyard in Orlando.