COLUMBUS, Ohio – They had most of the crowd, the entire nation of Australia, and anyone who happened to come across the heartwarming story of Peter Hooley on its side Friday night.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have Big 12 size and athleticism.
The 14th-seeded Great Danes fought the good fight as they did in their previous four trips to the NCAA Tournament. But No. 3 Oklahoma, who was wary enough to be on high alert after being upset by North Dakota St. at the same stage last season, physically dominated and eventually wore down the three-time defending America East champs, 69-60, at Nationwide Arena.
“We were overmatched physically and athletically, especially in the front court,” Albany coach Will Brown said. “Sam (Rowley) is as good as any player they have in the front court, but he’s giving up four inches and 40 to 50 pounds on those guys. And whoever is playing the 5 spot for us was going to be undersized. And over a 40-minute game, that really wears on you. And we can’t simulate that in a practice setting, we really can’t.”
Hooley, whose family was shown on the big screen in Columbus reacting to his first-half exploits at halftime, did his best to keep Albany afloat in the first half, scoring 12 points and hitting a couple of big three-pointers. The Great Danes trailed by just two, 25-23, after a Hooley layup with 6:16 left in the first half, and never let Oklahoma truly get away, trailing 36-27 at the intermission.
The Sooners (23-10) came in as the fifth most efficient defense in the nation, but that end didn’t prove to be the biggest problem for Albany, who scored 0.98 points per possession against that aforementioned extremely difficult opposition. But Oklahoma’s size gave the Great Danes fits, getting 10 offensive rebounds in the first half and at one point checking in at a whopping 1.47 ppp before cooling off to 1.28 ppp at halftime.
Albany (24-9) entered 12th nationally in defensive rebounding (but a closer look shows that number was slightly inflated by America East competition), and did a much better job in the second half (1.03 ppp for a 1.15 ppp total). Oklahoma finished with a 41.1% offensive rebounding rate.
“We knew they were not just physical,” Sam Rowley said. “They were tough and they were pretty skilled. So we were battling down there for the whole game. And they were bigger, they were stronger, and I thought in the first half they were tougher. Second half, I thought we played well. I thought we managed to sort of limit them.”
Alas, Oklahoma made some adjustments, too, and Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield (who scored 15 points), with some help from his teammates, made offensive life miserable for Hooley, who went just 1-7 from the field and scored just three points after halftime. Houston graduate transfer TaShawn Thomas had 18 points, while Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler added nine points and 11 rebounds.
“Coach (Kruger) got on us,” Hield said. “He had a lot of good looks in the first half. And I missed a couple of defensive plays, let them get a backdoor on me and missed a switch-off and Hooley got open. I feel like we stopped him in the second half. We keyed on him and we did a good job against him in the second half.”
Still, the Great Danes kept battling, the lead never got above 12 all night (coincidentally the same margin Albany lost by in the NCAA Tournament the last two years) and an Evan Singletary three-pointer from the left corner got them within 60-54 with 3:30 left, getting the mostly Dayton crowd truly in their favor for the first time. But Mount Vernon’s Isaiah Cousins answered with a dagger three-pointer seconds later.
“That was really big,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “If we don’t get a bucket there, they fo down and score and all of a sudden it’s a three or four-point ballgame. That’s different from a nine-point ballgame for sure. But Isaiah can make those shots without a lot of rhythm. He’s done that all year.”
Again, Singletary hit a three from the same spot to get it to 65-59 with 1:56 left, but Oklahoma took more than a minute off the clock on the next possession, and it just wasn’t to be for Albany on this evening.
The Great Danes fall to 1-5 in the NCAA Tournament, 0-5 in non play-in games (2 006, 2007, 2013, 2014, all under Brown), although they have never been higher than a No. 13 seed.
And certainly there was no shame in their performance here (or all season, obviously, despite the final result). The Great Danes return everyone but Sam Rowley (who finished with 12 points and six rebounds), and despite the fact teams like Stony Brook and Vermont were also fairly young this season, will likely be one of the favorites for a fourth-straight title.
Oklahoma advances to play the Providence/Dayton winner on Sunday here in Columbus, and is one of the teams who may be able to sneak into the Final Four (Villanova and Virginia are the the top seeds in the East region.
Meanwhile, it’s over, but it was a season to remember for Albany, both on and off the court, where the Great Danes did themselves and the conference proud.
“The way the team came together as a group is something I can never say thank you enough for, the way they embraced me when I came back,” Hooley said. “And I’ll tell you, it was one of the toughest years for me, obviously. And I think the guys can attest it was tough for them, too. That’s how close we were. One through 15, we love each other and obviously this guy next to me (Sam Rowley) I love more than I tell most people.”
Added Brown: “I’m proud of this group. We led this conference from the opening day until the end. We were fortunate enough to host games and the conference tournament. We ended up winning our league, which is a good league. The America East conference is a good league with good coaches and some up and coming programs. It’s been a really good year and a fun ride.”