Albany beats Maine 59-58 for 5th straight America East title
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) Shereesha Richards didn't try to hide her glee.
''Absolutely amazing. Going out with a win as a senior. It's great,'' the star for the Albany Great Danes said after another superlative performance.
The Jamaican-born Richards scored 31 points and top-seeded Albany held off second-seeded Maine 59-58 on Friday to win the America East Conference championship for a record fifth time in a row and the berth in the NCAA Tournament that goes with it.
Albany (27-4) barely managed to hold on against the Black Bears (26-8), who were seeking their eighth title. The victory made the Great Danes just the 16th team in any conference to win five straight tournament titles.
''Wooooo! That's how I feel,'' Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. ''It was probably the best championship game we've ever had here. I'm very proud of them. We were down five at halftime. In the locker room, I just said we gotta get the ball to Shereesha and (Imani) Tate.''
Richards, the league's leading scorer and three-time conference player of the year, hit a shot off the glass to give the Great Danes a 59-55 lead with 69 seconds left.
Sigi Koizar followed with a 3 from the right wing to bring Maine within a point, but the Great Danes held on in the frenetic final seconds.
Tate, who had nine of her 15 points in the final quarter, missed a baseline jumper at the shot clock buzzer with 21 seconds left to give the Black Bears a great chance at victory. But Koizar missed a scoop shot in the lane with 2.6 seconds left and Maine's Chantel Charles was then called for an intentional foul before the ball was put in play.
Cassandra Edwards missed both free throws for Albany and the Black Bears another chance when the ensuing inbounds pass by Albany from in front of the Maine bench caromed out of bounds at the far end of the court without anybody touching it as Richards crashed to the floor at mid-court after getting tangled with defenders.
Albany escaped when Mikaela Gustafsson's wild shot at the buzzer sailed out of bounds.
''Just to get to this point is not something that any of us are happy with right now,'' Maine coach Richard Barron said. ''There's disappointment. It's far more than a season, far more than wins. We've had a good four years together, and we're excited it's not done. We're looking forward to going to the NIT and making a run.''
Albany has won 14 straight America East tournament games, matching the longest streak in conference history set by Maine from 1995-98. Albany has won 17 straight games at home, the last loss coming against the Black Bears just over a year ago.
Koizar led Maine with 15 points, Gustafsson had 11, and Liz Wood 10 before fouling out.
Richards, who averages 23.5, was held in check the last time the teams met. She scored just eight points in a Valentine's Day road loss, the fourth and last time she wasn't in double figures this season. She finished 11 of 18 shooting and 9 of 10 from the free throw line on Friday.
''She's a fantastic player and I'm not gonna miss her in the league, but I'm sure Albany will,'' Barron said. ''She's good. She's just athletic and she gets the ball up on the glass. She's got a great ability of creating contact, being the initiator of contact, turning that into an and-one.''
Maine ranked third nationally, allowing 49.7 points per game, and Albany was the only team in the conference to score more than 55 points on the Black Bears during the season.
Both teams finished the season 15-1 in conference and spoiled each other's attempt to finish with an unblemished record in league play. Albany beat Maine 64-59 at home in mid-January, and the Black Bears returned the favor a month later on their home court, winning 65-53. Albany gained the top seed because the Great Danes have a higher RPI.
Maine: In its first America East title game since winning it in 2004. ...Was the last team to beat Albany at SEFCU Arena, 52-44 just over a year ago. ... Entered game with 11th-longest current winning streak in the nation at 14 straight, six on the road. The Black Bears were one victory shy of matching the school record for a season set in 1995-96. ... Maine leads the series with Albany 18-16.
OUCH!: The Great Danes were hurt by early foul trouble as Erin Coughlin and Tiana-Jo Carter picked up two apiece and combined to play just 11 minutes without scoring in the first two quarters. They combined to average 13.5 points per game.
Albany: Richards, who was named tournament MVP, is Albany's all-time leading scorer with 2,403 points and third in conference history, two behind second-place Rachel Bouchard of Maine (2,405 points from 1987-91). Cindy Blodgett, also of Maine, has the record (3,005 from 1994-98). ... Before Friday, shared league record of four straight tournament titles with Maine (1993-96).
Albany: NCAA Tournament.
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