ALBANY, N.Y. – Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson plopped down at the postgame press conference and yelled "Wow!"
Tournament most outstanding player Megan Craig had 16 points and seven rebounds, Shereesha Richards and Lindsey Lowrie added 12 points apiece, and top-seeded Albany (N.Y.) rallied past Hartford 61-52 on Saturday night to win its second straight America East Conference tournament.
"Wow! We really did go undefeated," senior guard Ebone Henry said. "That feels really good. It shows all the hard work that we put in this year. It was tough. I'm just glad we were able to do it."
The defending champion Great Danes (27-3), regular-season champions for the first time in program history, ended the regular season as the lone undefeated team in league play at 16-0. They've won 28 straight games against America East opponents, including the postseason, and will join the men's team in the NCAA tournament.
"What they have done this year, that is impossible to do," Abrahamson-Henderson said. "It's because of our seniors. They just keep doing it. To do what they've done is remarkable. It feels like every game we play we're going to lose. They just stay in there."
Albany swept second-seeded Hartford (21-11) in the season series, posting a 55-48 overtime win in Albany before recording a 66-55 road win. The Great Danes beat New Hampshire 71-57 in the conference semifinals for their 18th straight win and were beating their conference opponents by an average of nearly 24 points.
The Hawks were seeking their sixth title and came up just short as Albany scored the final nine points of the game in the last 97 seconds.
"Albany knew what they wanted to do at the end. You could see we were not at the same place," Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti said. "I thought we freaked out at the end of the game a little bit with some of the shots and decisions we made.
"Unfortunately, that kind of defined our season a little bit. A lot of our losses were a lack of being able to execute at the end against the good teams."
Hartford used a strong defensive performance to beat No. 6 seed Vermont 64-33 in the semifinals. Hartford held Vermont to just eight first-half points and forced 31 turnovers to tie the league postseason record.
The Hawks kept up the defensive pressure against the Great Danes. Alex Hall and Alyssa Englert helped hold leading scorer Henry without a basket until just past the midpoint of the second half. Henry, the all-time leading scorer in school history for Albany (1,631 points), missed her first seven shots and the Great Danes trailed 40-36 after she missed a 3 from the wing midway through the second half.
Undaunted, Henry converted a pair of runners in the lane — her only baskets of the game — sandwiched around a fast-break layup by Richards to give Albany a 42-40 lead with 8:20 to play and the Great Danes never trailed again.
Henry, who was averaging 14.2 points a game, finished with five points, six assists and five turnovers and shot only two free throws.
"The key to stopping a good player is good team defense," Rizzotti said. "We forced her into some tough shots. She scores a lot of her points normally off of free throws. One of our focuses was to not let her get to the line. It's what makes a team a championship team — when you take away their best player and they still find a way to win."
When Julie Forster fouled out with 6:58 left after notching 10 points and four steals and snaring six rebounds, the Great Danes were without their best rebounder, but they failed to wilt.
Henry set up Richards for a shot off the glass and a 52-48 lead with 2:56 left. After Nikkia Smith's layup moved Hartford into a 52-all tie with 97 seconds left, Albany scored nine straight points as its defense clamped down.
With fans holding up a sign that read "Dancing Danes" and roaring, Sarah Royals scored from the lane and the 6-foot-8 Craig capitalized on a turnover by Amber Bepko, grabbing a loose ball and hitting a shot off the glass as the Danes pulled away.
Shanise Bultron missed a wild 3-pointer with 14.4 seconds left and 10 seconds later Englert and Smith both missed. The Great Danes hit 5 of 6 free throws to secure the victory.
Smith led Hartford with a game-high 18 points, the only Hartford player in double figures. Bultron had seven points and Bepko finished with six for Hartford, which was outscored 38-14 in the paint.
Craig proved difficult for the Hawks to handle all night. She had two easy layups and Forster added two more as Albany reeled off 10 straight points to gain a 15-8 lead in the first 5 minutes of play. The surge came after Bepko's four-point play had given Hartford an 8-5 lead.
With cheerleaders and pep bands from both schools rocking SEFCU Arena on Albany's campus, the Hawks matched the Great Danes at every turn in the first half and right up until the closing seconds of the game.
After Richards' fast-break layup staked Albany to a 24-16 lead at 6:40, Hartford closed the half with a 10-1 spurt to take a 26-25 lead into the locker room. Daphne Elliott started the rush with a 3-pointer from the top of the key and Bultron finished it with a pair of baskets in the final 2:18, the first a pretty floater over the outstretched arms of Craig.
The Hawks' total was just about right for Albany, which entered the game ranked third in the nation, allowing 48.6 points per game. What the Great Danes were lacking in the first half was any sort of scoring contribution from Henry, who missed all four shots she attempted, though she did have three assists.
"When things aren't going our way, we just have to stick together and just stay calm," Henry said. "We've done a great job of that all year long and it just carried over to this game. I'm just glad we were able to keep our poise and execute down the stretch."
The Albany men beat Vermont 53-49 earlier Saturday to make the NCAA field for the first time since 2007, spoiling the day for the sellout crowd of 3,245 in the hostile environment of the Catamounts' Patrick Gym. The Albany men became the first team seeded lower than third to win the title and set a school season record with their 24th victory.