ALBANY — As January ended with a strong effort in defeat at Vermont, the UAlbany men’s basketball team had finished off a stretch of play that warranted the Great Danes consideration as one of the America East Conference’s top threats to the Catamounts.
Not even a full two weeks later, the situation is a much different one for the Great Danes coming out of another loss to Vermont, a defeat in which UAlbany first-year head coach Dwayne Killings said his club didn’t play “tough enough” to give itself a chance to win Saturday at SEFCU Arena.
On its own, there’s little issue with a team losing 76-63 to Vermont, like UAlbany did this weekend. The high-powered Catamounts are the America East’s top program, have won 14 games in a row and remain perfect in league play.
But UAlbany’s latest loss was its fourth in five games and followed a dismal performance in a defeat against last-place Maine. Both senior guard Jamel Horton and Killings traced the start of the team’s struggles back to a subpar second half against UMBC on Feb. 2.
“We have not been able to get right since then,” Killings said. “It’s concerning.”
Vermont (12-0 league, 20-4 overall) played without its top player against UAlbany (6-7, 10-15), but the Catamounts looked like a team operating at full strength. Back spasms sidelined a day-to-day Ryan Davis — Vermont’s leading scorer and the reigning America East Conference Player of the Year — but the Catamounts never trailed and had a double-digit advantage for the majority of the game. Vermont’s largest lead was 21 points, and the only time head coach John Becker’s team — which is tied for the longest active winning streak in the country — had a lead of fewer than 10 points in the second half was when UAlbany’s Paul Newman scored the period’s opening bucket. After that score brought UAlbany within 38-30, Vermont answered with a 9-0 run.
Not counting last season’s abbreviated campaign, Vermont’s win Saturday secured the program’s 13th consecutive 20-win season. Becker said there is a special feel to this season’s team, which was led Saturday by 18 points from Ben Shungu.
“They’ve just been tremendous. I’m really, really enjoying this group,” Becker said. “They’re prepared. They’re player-led. They have all the attributes of a great team.”
Finn Sullivan produced 15 points and Robin Duncan added 13 for Vermont, which also received eight points from former Colonie High School star Isaiah Powell.
For UAlbany, freshman Justin Neely had a career-high 26 points on 11 of 14 shooting. Horton added 14 points, and no other UAlbany player scored more than Matt Cerruti’s seven.
At different points this season, each of UAlbany’s freshmen has delivered strong moments, with Neely — who has won multiple rookie-of-the-week honors from the conference — delivering most of them. Neely has averaged a freshman-leading 17 minutes per game, but Killings seemed to suggest the Great Danes will consider playing its younger players more in the regular season’s final five games.
“We may need to look at some different things as we finish the season. I think, in my situation right now, culture is really important. How we do things is really important. We’re playing to win games,” Killings said. “But there’s some decisions that we have to kind of think about as we finish the year for what’s best for right now and also for next season — because we’re not performing the way that we were at one point, and there’s some disconnect that we have to figure out.”
While Vermont could clinch the America East postseason’s top seed as early as Monday night, the Great Danes are now in sixth place and only two clubs — Maine and NJIT — have more losses in conference play than UAlbany.
The Great Danes next play Wednesday at Binghamton, a club that defeated UAlbany earlier this season. Killings said his club’s “urgency” needs to be better moving forward, and Horton echoed that sentiment.
“I just feel like we’ve got to fight more,” Horton said.