- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Sometimes, Katie Abrahamson-Henderson has to pinch herself.

The coach of the Albany women’s basketball team watched her Great Danes win 38 America East Conference games in a row before losing the season finale at home to Stony Brook. The 66-56 setback last Saturday ended what had been the longest conference winning streak in Division I and the longest in America East history.

The Great Danes (26-4) hadn’t lost since Hartford beat them 62-55 on Jan. 28, 2012. Their chance for a second straight 16-0 conference record was thwarted by the Seawolves.

“What they’ve accomplished is incredible,” Stony Brook coach Beth O’Boyle said. “They’re so well-coached.”

The players know they can help Albany reach for its third straight NCAA tournament berth.

“Coach tells us not to look at stuff like that,” sophomore forward Shereesha Richards said. “We focus on the game and what’s coming.”

The top seed in the America East tournament, the Great Danes meet No. 8 Binghamton (5-23) in the quarterfinals Friday night. In the other matchups Friday, second-seeded Stony Brook (22-7) plays No. 7 UMBC (4-24), third-seeded New Hampshire (18-11) faces No. 6 Vermont (7-22), and No. 4 Maine (16-13) meets No. 5 Hartford (12-17).

The semifinals are Sunday and the championship is Monday afternoon.

Coach Abe, in her fourth season at Albany, calls her good fortune “dumb luck” because her Great Danes are led by two players - the 6-foot-1 Richards and 6-9 junior center Megan Craig - who honed their skills playing netball as youngsters. Richards played in her native Jamaica and Craig in New Zealand.

Netball was developed in England in the late 1890s as an offshoot of basketball and is predominantly played by women. Games are more regimented and staged on a rectangular court with raised goal rings at each end but no backboards. Each team attempts to score goals by passing a ball down the court and shooting it through its goal ring.

Shereesha is very good at passing,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “You can’t bring the ball down, can’t dribble it in netball. It’s a quick passing game. You have to pass it. Shereesha just ran ahead of people and caught the ball and finished.”

Richards hasn’t skipped a beat since switching sports. She became a basketball star in high school at Atlantic Christian in New Jersey, scoring 1,147 points in two seasons and averaging a double-double as a junior before enrolling at Albany.

A fierce competitor, Richards led the America East in scoring (20.2) and rebounding (9.2) this season and would be a star on any team in America. She scored 20 points in the first half of a game at then-No. 2 Duke in December before the Blue Devils clamped down in the second half, limiting her to just four more, and pulled away to a 29-point win.

“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised at my success,” said Richards, who won player of the week honors nine times during the season and ranks second in all of Division I with a 62.4 field-goal percentage. “When you know your potential and you have other people believing in you, that gives you confidence and helps you boost your self-esteem. You know what you can do and just go forward with it.”

Abrahamson-Henderson found out about the soft-spoken Craig after playing professionally in New Zealand. Friends there told her about Craig when she was an associate head coach at Indiana.

“The moment I got this job, I called her and said, ‘You’re coming.’ I didn’t see her play,” Abrahamson-Henderson said of the nearly 7-foot player. “I saw her on tape a little bit. Obviously, we developed her because she played netball, but it’s really worth it. You can’t teach size.”

Still learning the nuances of the game, Craig scored 139 points in the last nine games of the regular season to rise to eighth in the conference in scoring (12.4). She ranked second to Richards in shooting (58.8), blocked 42 shots, and averaged 4.9 rebounds.

Albany’s “Twin Towers” have had plenty of help: Erin Coughlin hit 54 3-pointers, Sarah Royals averaged 11.4 points and 3.8 assists, Margarita Rosario had seven or more assists seven times and led the league in free throw shooting (83.1), and Tammy Phillip had 11 games with 10 or more rebounds.

Although Albany has been the class of the conference, that’s also somewhat of a hindrance since the America East ranks at the bottom nationally in strength. The Great Danes made it as high as No. 4 in the College Insider Women’s Mid-Major Top 25, but Albany’s strength of schedule was too weak to attract even one vote in the AP poll.

Still, the Great Danes think they can become a powerhouse just like upstate rival Marist (24-6), who they beat 69-59 early in the season. The Red Foxes earned a share of their 11th consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season title and have made eight straight NCAA tournament appearances, reaching the round of 16 in 2007.

Albany already has had one shining moment in the NCAA tournament. A year ago, behind former star Ebone Henry, the 14th-seeded Great Danes nearly upset ACC power North Carolina in the opening round. They trailed by only a basket with 47 seconds left before losing 59-54.

“They should have won that game,” longtime Marist coach Brian Giorgis said.

Craig figures there will be more opportunities.

“I think we can slowly get to the powerhouse type of label,” she said. “It’s exciting just knowing how well we’re doing.”

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