West Hartford, Conn.-- No. 2 University at Albany will make its first-ever America East title game appearance and No. 5 UMBC will make its first since 2007 next Saturday, March 10 at 8 p.m. when the two teams vie for the 2012 America East Women's Basketball Championship at Albany's SEFCU Arena. The Great Danes and Retrievers advanced with semifinal wins on Sunday afternoon at Hartford's Chase Family Arena, and Albany earned hosting rights for next week's final as the highest remaining seed.
Next week's final will air live on ESPN3 as well as on ESPN Regional Networks in the New York Capitol Region and Mid-Atlantic. The winner will earn the conference's automatic berth to the 2012 NCAA Tournament's field of 64 teams.
UMBC (17-14) fell in last year's semifinals as the top seed, but it reversed roles this year by knocking off top-seeded Boston U. 77-61 in Sunday's first semifinal. Head coach Phil Stern's team, the preseason coaches' favorite after winning last season's Regular Season Championship, will make its second America East title game appearance. The Retrievers' first came as a seven seed when they won the 2007 America East Championship.
Albany (22-9) continued its historic season winning its 22nd game of the season and winning its first America East semifinal game in program history after being picked to finish fifth in the head coaches' preseason poll last October. The Great Danes upended New York rival Binghamton, the six seed, 58-50 Sunday afternoon.
The only other time a No. 5 seed has made the final was Hartford in 2002. The Hawks, who won their first of five titles over the last 10 years that year, defeated No. 7 seed Stony Brook that year to become the only five seed to ever win the America East Women's Basketball Championship. Albany is the third straight No. 2 seed to make it to the title game weekend. It is also the 10th straight year which at least one of the top two seeds will appear in the championship game.
Two days after hitting the game-winning free throws in the quarterfinals, UMBC senior Michelle Kurowski scored a tournament-high 25 points. The league's active career scoring leader with over 1,650 points, Kurowski went 5-of-7 from beyond the three-point arc, setting a new career high for three-pointers in a game. She also dished out five assists, matching Rookie of the Year Lauren Chase's assists total for the game.
Junior guard Kristin Coles was another one of UMBC's four players in double digits, scoring 12 points and 10 rebounds for her sixth double-double of the year. Coles also had the responsibility of guarding Player of the Year Chantell Alford and held her to 3-of-14 shooting and nine points.
“We play Kris Coles on the best offensive player every night and there was no doubt for us that she was going to contain [Alford]," said UMBC head coach Phil Stern on Coles guarding Alford.
UMBC led at the half 33-23 behind Kurowski's 11 points and 3-of-4 shooting from three-point range. The Retrievers went on a 19-9 run spanning over seven minutes, capped by back-to-back Kurowski three-pointers. Kurowski had nine points alone during that stretch. The Retrievers also collected 12 second-chance points off of 10 offensive boards in the first half and outrebounded the Terriers 22-20.
After shooting 36.4 percent in the first half, UMBC picked it up shooting 46.2 percent in the last 20 minutes of the game. The Retrievers continued to be dominant on the glass in their offensive end, finishing the game collecting 17 offensive rebounds and scoring 23 second-chance points. Possession was also a key as UMBC turned the ball over a season-low five times.
Boston U. senior Alex Young paced the Terriers (23-8) with 20 points and going 3-of-6 from three-point range. The Terriers are guaranteed a berth into the Postseason WNIT because of their regular-season first-place finish should they not advance to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.
Behind Defensive Player of the Year Ebone Henry's 19-point afternoon, the Great Danes defeated the Bearcats (13-18) for the third time this season. Henry completed an impressive effort with seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks in addition to her scoring output, while teammate Lindsey Lowrie hit three treys to finish with 11 points.
Albany and Binghamton both shot 36 percent from the field in the first half, but a 7-0 run beginning with a Julie Forster free throw at 8:12 and ending with a Cassandra Callaway layup at 5:16 gave the Great Danes a 23-20 advantage at the intermission. During that stretch, the Great Danes' held the Bearcats offense scoreless for nearly six minutes.
The Great Danes began the second half with the first five points, all from Henry, and then went off on a 24-9 run to build their largest lead of the game of 18 points, 47-29, with 10:06 left in the game.
Just when it seemed the Danes were pulling away for good, Binghamton responded with a 21-7 run itself, sparked by two quick baskets by Bearcat senior guard Andrea Holmes. Holmes, who played the latter part of the second half with four fouls, finished with a team-high 17 points, including nine points over the final 10 minutes.
“We knew they were going to make their run it was just how were we going to stop it," said Lowrie on Binghamton's comeback attempt. "I hit some threes but it’s a team sport and we played good defense, stopped the run, got the win so I’m happy.”
Binghamton got as close as four points 54-50 with one minute left, but Albany scored the last four points of the game when Adrienne Jones netted a layup on a long inbounds pass with 35 seconds on the clock and Henry sealed the victory with two free throws. Henry finished 8-for-8 at the charity stripe.
Albany's full court pressure forced Binghamton into 22 turnovers and scored 26 points off of those miscues.
The championship game features the league's top offense in UMBC (60.3 ppg) and the stingiest defense in Albany, allowing just 52.6 ppg. The Retrievers' 77 points in the semifinal win was a season high for the team. Meanwhile, the Great Danes have forced 50 turnovers in the first two games of the 2012 America East Basketball Championship.