Albany takes America East title over Hartford, claims NCAA berth

ALBANY, N.Y. -- When Hartford moved a little too close for comfort early in the second half of the America East championship game, Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson simply called a timeout and gave her usual spiel.

"We've got to stop letting them get 3s,'' Abrahamson-Henderson pleaded. "We've got to stay poised -- and get the ball to No. 25.''

That would be two-time conference player of the year Shereesha Richards. The Great Danes did just that, and she responded as she usually does, scoring a game-high 28 points in the paint where she dominates to lead Albany to an 84-75 victory over the injury-plagued Hawks on Friday.

That sends Albany (24-8) to the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight time.

"It's exciting,'' said Richards, named the most outstanding player of the tournament. "It never gets old.''

Richards also became Albany's career scoring leader with 1,656 points and is the first player since Cindy Blodgett of Maine in 1997 to score 20 or more points in three straight conference tournament games.

Like everybody else, the Hawks simply had no answer for the 6-foot-1 junior from Jamaica.

"We all guarded her at one time, and it was sometimes five of us on her -- and she still scored,'' said Cherelle Moore, who scored 22 points for the Hawks.

Albany has dominated the conference tournament of late, combining to go 11-0 and winning the past four titles to match the America East record. The 11 straight wins is the second-longest streak in conference history, behind only Maine's 14 straight in the 1990s. Maine, from 1995 to '98, is the only other team to win four straight America East conference championships.

Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti could only shake her head in admiration.

"(Richards) just is pretty relentless. She never seems to get tired, never seems to get frustrated,'' the former UConn star said. "She does a great job of understanding the game and understanding that her shots will come.''

Imani Tate added 18 points and nine rebounds, and freshman Tiana-Jo Carter matched her season high with 16 on 8-for-9 shooting for Albany.

Playing in the America East title game for the fourth time in six years, fifth-seeded Hartford (16-17) upset top-seeded Maine in the semifinals. But starters Morgan Lumb and Amber Bepko, key cogs in the Hawks' offense, suffered knee injuries less than three minutes apart in the first half and spent the final 25 minutes of the game watching.

It was too much for the Hawks to overcome against the reigning league champions despite a game effort.

"We knew that they were going to step up, especially with Lumb and Bepko out, which they did,'' said Sarah Royals, who scored eight points to reach 1,000 in her Albany career. "But our talent is spread out enough we were able to (win).''

Deanna Mayza also scored 22 for the Hawks, hitting four of Hartford's eight 3-pointers. Bepko, whose 90 made 3-pointers were 26 more than the Great Danes as a team, finished with three points, hitting a 3 from the right wing on her first shot of the day.

Albany had won its previous four games by an average margin of 25.5 points, including 66-32 over UMBC and 63-33 against Vermont in the America East tournament. But even without Bepko and Lumb, the Hawks refused to go away quietly.

Trailing 39-29 at halftime, Moore opened the second half with a backdoor layup, Christie Michals followed with a 3-pointer from the left corner and Moore came back with two more baskets in close, the second on a fast break to pull the Hawks within 43-38 with 17:42 left.

Less than two minutes later, Mayza hit a 3 from the top of the key and a free throw by Darby Lee closed the gap to 45-42 with 14:41 left.

Tate then sparked a 12-2 Albany run with six quick points, her jumper in the lane boosting the lead to 55-44 with 12:04 to go. Then Richards took over, scoring six straight points to become Albany's career scoring leader.

"We just had to stay focused on defense, and that's what we pretty much did, and pulled away,'' Richards said.


Albany: The Great Danes had won their previous four games by an average margin of 25.5 points, including 66-32 over UMBC and 63-33 against Vermont in the tournament. ... Richards and Tate combined to score 69 points, the most ever for teammates in a single game in conference history, in an 82-58 home win over the Hawks in January. Albany also beat Hartford 65-50 on the road. ... Ebone Henry held the previous Albany record with 1,642 points. ... Sarah Royals had eight points to reach 1,000 for her career.

Hartford: Lumb injured her left knee in a collision with another player with 13:08 left in the first half and went to the bench. Less than three minutes later, Bepko landed awkwardly after trying to snare a rebound and wrenched her right knee, screaming loudly as she lay on the court. She was carried off the floor and did not return. Lumb returned with 6:17 left in the first half and a brace on the knee, but less than a minute later she fell to the floor again, was carried to the bench and did not return. ... The Hawks also lost the championship game to Albany two years ago.


Hartford: Awaiting postseason selections.

Albany: NCAA tournament.