ORLANDO– They came in with a mission, and they came very, very close to the goal. The Albany Great Danes battled long and hard, but ended up being the 117th 16 seed to lose to a one-seed on the opening weekend of NCAA tournament play.
Albany has been a group of road warriors, playing three games in six days in three different states and arrived in Central Florida at close to three in the morning Wednesday.
Head coach Will Brown said his team had not seen a basketball court since their victory over Mount St. Mary’s Tuesday –they put tape down in their hotel ballroom to walk through things before facing Florida. That’s not exactly the ideal preparation model to face the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, but the scrappy bunch of America East champions made the most of it. Brown said he did it mostly to preserve his tired bunch of athletes.
“Wednesday was all mental preparation,” Brown said. “Today we didn’t even do a shoot‑around. We didn’t go to the gym…I had to keep these guys fresh, not only physically but mentally, as well; because I had to have them believing that we can win this game.”
Against UF the Great Danes were led by guard DJ Evans, a 5-foot-9 little engine that could, who battled hard against Goliath in the second round. Evans took a knee to the head that left him looking like a woozy prizefighter in the second half. He would return only to get hurt again. During the postgame press conference he came to the podium with his right elbow wrapped in ice, an athlete who refused to go down the easy way.
“I had a lot of bumps and bruises,” Evans said. “But if I would have never got back up and went back in the game, I feel like I would just let my team down, so I just felt like they needed me at the time. But I’m okay. I was able to get back in. But it was just a dog-fight. I just didn’t want to let my teammates down.”
The most important thing for Albany was not letting specific players beat them, mainly guards Micheal Frazier II and Scottie Wilbekin. Wilbekin was visibly flustered at a few points in the game. Most notably, after being tied up with a clear path to the hole and Patric Young running parallel for a potential rim-rocking alley-oop. He reached the ball back behind his head and looked to the heavens in frustration.
Frazier was as quiet as a church mouse in Thursday’s game –fitting for the son of a Tampa preacher man, 1-5 from the field in total, 1-4 from three point range at times you forgot he was even on the floor. His three points constituted a silence that was of particular emphasis for Brown.
“Well, we had all sorts of names for him,” Brown said. “Ray Allen, Jesus Shuttlesworth. He has the smoothest stroke since Ray Allen. We were determined not to let him get a free look. Unbelievable shooter, arguably as good of a shooter as you’ll find in college basketball. We wanted to force them to beat us with twos.”
And that’s what Florida did. Out of their first 28 points, 22 of them came in the painted area, and 38 of the final tally of 67 came inside the key. In the end,Florida was simply too rested, too talented and too strong for Cinderella –one player in particular.
“You see the size of Patric Young? If he couldn’t make it in the NBA he’s going to have a shot in the NFL. If he doesn’t go to the NFL, he’ll be in the WWE, if he doesn’t go to the WWE maybe UFC, I mean, that guy is enormous,” Brown said after the game.
Evans said his team didn’t have to play perfectly –that of course is impossible– but that they had to play really, really well to win. Albany did that, but it still wasn’t enough.
That’s how things go in March.
67 teams enter, only one leaves ultimately victorious, but don’t think these Albany Great Danes came to Florida to lay down; they weren’t just happy to be here and certainly weren’t planning on basking in the glow of the No. 1 team in the nation.
“We came here to win,” Brown said. “I know a lot of people smile about that and think this coach is crazy, these kids are crazy. We came here to win. We believed we could win. We wanted to be the first 16 to beat a 1. That was our mentality.”