ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) When former University at Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson suddenly bolted for a new opportunity, the Great Danes were stunned.
''It was not the happiest moment of our lives,'' junior Tiana-Jo Carter said with a laugh. ''But life's all about change, and we knew that she was going on to a bigger place that's better for her career, so we had to respect that.''
Abrahamson-Henderson left an imposing legacy when she accepted the job at Central Florida nearly a year ago: four America East regular season championships; five straight conference tournament titles and NCAA Tournament berths; 38 straight conference wins spanning more than two years, the longest in conference history; and the first NCAA Tournament victory in school history, a 2-point win over Florida last March.
New coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee has been more than up to the task.
After starting 3-5, Albany (20-11) has settled nicely into Coach Mac's system. The Great Danes finished the regular season by winning nine of their last 10 games in conference play. Among those victories was 64-55 over regular-season champion New Hampshire, which had won 13 straight.
''When you're 18, 19, 20, and 21, change is really hard, especially when it's change you didn't sign up for,'' Bernabei-McNamee said. ''But every day, as a coaching staff, we see more buying (into the system). It comes not only from the players trusting us, but trusting each other on the floor. That's what you need at the end of the season.''
Now it seems like the same old Great Danes as March Madness gets into full swing. The record might not be so gaudy, but Albany again hosting the America East Conference championship game, this time against Maine (18-15) on Friday.
Make no mistake - this has not been easy.
Besides losing a hugely successful coach - Abrahamson-Henderson guided UCF to 20 wins this season, 13 more than the previous year - the Great Danes also lost Shereesha Richards, the best player in program history, to graduation, and point guard Zakiya Saunders followed Coach Abe to UCF.
Toss in the fact that Bernabei-McNamee switched defenses, and there was a very steep learning curve.
''To trust a new system was a little hard for us in the beginning,'' Carter said. ''We struggled. We came together and said, `We need to trust in the system.' Once we started believing that, things turned around for us.''
Leading the way has been senior Imani Tate, the active conference leader in points with 1,722. The light bulb went on for her while sitting out four games in December with an injured foot.
''I was able to see my teammates step up,'' said Tate, who leads the team in scoring (19.1) and steals (60). ''I knew that when I came back from injury I wouldn't have to do it by myself. ... I didn't have to score 20 a game. I can score 10 or 12 and know that my teammates are going to still have great games.''
Those teammates include senior Bailey Hixson (52 of 139 on 3-pointers, 37.4 percent), and two Canadians - freshman guard Mackenzie Trpcic has started 12 games and is averaging 3.9 assists, tied with Tate for the team lead, while redshirt junior Jessica Fequiere is the second-leading scorer (12.7) and top rebounder (7.3).
''We started to understand the concepts of our defense, which has been big,'' Trpcic said. ''They've always played zone. We're playing man, we're switching up.''
''I thought that I would get them on the same page a little faster than we did,'' added Bernabei-McNamee, whose staff includes Hall of Famer Yolanda Griffith and former Albany star guard Erin Coughlin. ''Patience is a virtue I don't always have. It paid off. Now they're really coming together.''
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