ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) Albany coach Will Brown will be the first to tell you he didn’t see it coming.
Neither did anyone else.
Despite being the reigning regular-season and tournament champions of the America East Conference, Albany was picked to finish third in the preseason. When you lose three starters and welcome nine newcomers, expectations tend to diminish.
Fast forward to March and what’s in the Great Danes’ wake is, well, quite great. Albany won a program-record 12 straight games – nine of those wins coming after junior guard Peter Hooley, the team’s leading scorer, returned home to his native Australia to be with his dying mother – and is vying for another title after capturing the regular season with a 15-1 record.
”I think we’re a good, solid basketball team right now,” Brown said. ”Our guys have done a good job overall of just worrying about the next task. The concern with my team right now is how much juice is left in the battery. We might need a battery recharge.”
Not just yet.
Albany (22-8) defeated Maine 83-66 in the America East quarterfinals on Wednesday night and will host New Hampshire on Sunday in the semis.
”I just think it’s a resilient group. They’re not worried, in my opinion, about losing,” Brown said. ”When games get tight, I guess they think they’re going to find a way to win. I do think they’re a confident group. I definitely don’t think they’re an overconfident group. It sounds silly, but we don’t have a lot of room for error.”
Hooley, a co-captain, averaged 15.5 points in nearly 35 minutes before leaving the team in mid-January for three weeks. Teammate Mike Rowley, a fellow Australian, accompanied Hooley on his flight to the West Coast while the team prepared for a road game at rival Stony Brook.
Determined to keep the conference winning streak alive, junior college transfer Evan Singletary scored 21 points and Sam Rowley, Mike’s older brother, had 16 points and 13 rebounds to lead Albany past the Seawolves 64-47 as the Great Danes improved to 5-0 in the conference.
”When something happens and you have to deal with adversity, usually the next game is when the group responds and plays tremendously,” Brown said. ”It’s after that when you really have to worry. I think our guys have just been resilient.”
That resilience was tested again less than two weeks later when 52-year-old Sue Hooley lost her valiant fight against colon cancer. Brown broke the news to the team before they played at Maine and the Great Danes responded with a 77-59 victory to reach 9-0 in the conference.
A special bond has been forged here. Just three days before Peter Hooley left to be with his mom, the Albany community raised $12,000 for the Cancer Council of South Australia in Sue Hooley’s name, and Brown said another $3,000 has been donated since.
When Hooley returned to Albany in mid-February, basketball was an afterthought at best that first day back. He simply huddled with his teammates, and that was enough.
”It’s been everything for me,” Hooley said. ”Here’s another family on the other side of the world that’s helped me transition back into my life over here. They are my brothers, and they’re always here for me. When I fall down, they pick me back up and they know I’d do the same for them.”
His teammates are in awe at his resilience.
”It’s been very tough,” Singletary said. ”Going through what he went through, I can’t even say I can imagine that – to lose your mother. That’s just tough. For him to come back and play as well as he’s playing, it shows how strong he is.”
Hooley has stepped right back into the rotation – as a reserve – and is slowly regaining his deft touch. He averaged just under 10 points and 21 minutes in his first four games back – one of them a heart-breaking, three-point home loss to Stony Brook that snapped the winning streak – before hitting 5 of 6 from the field for 18 points in 27 minutes against the Black Bears in the quarterfinals.
Now Brown has an envious task – figuring out when to transition Hooley back into the starting lineup.
”We are a better team long-term with Peter Hooley in the lineup, and we’ve done tremendous things without him,” Brown said. ”We’ve got to find a happy medium.”