Albany senior Tiana-Jo Carter, right, a Maine native and former star at Lake Region High, battles with Maine’s Fanny Wadling in the America East Conference championship last March. Carter and Albany will be playing for a seventh straight confrerence title this weekend in Portland. Photo by John Carl D’Annibale/The Albany Times Union via AP

University of Albany basketball coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee gave her team a day off in February. A time to relax for the players but not for the coach.

“When we’re off, I’m recruiting,” she said via phone while on the road.

There is no rest for the team on top.

“Hopefully we’ll continue to bring in young, great student-athletes who want to work hard to keep up the tradition.”

It’s been quite a tradition. Albany, which began its America East tenure with an 0-16 conference record in 2001-02, is now the powerhouse, the longest-running dynasty in league history.

Albany will compete for a seventh straight conference title when the league tournament returns to Cross Insurance Arena this weekend. The quarterfinals are scheduled for Saturday and semifinals Sunday. The semifinal winners will meet for the title March 9 on the home court of the higher seed.

The previous record for consecutive America East titles was four, set by the University of Maine from 1995-98.

Albany and Maine are tied for the most consecutive NCAA tournament berths with six. The America East champion receives an automatic invitation to the NCAAs. Maine followed its four automatic berths with two at-large invitations.

“Winning is the one similarity we have,” Amy Vachon said when asked to compare the two dynasties.

Vachon knows something of both, playing for the Maine powerhouse – while becoming the conference’s most prolific point guard – and coaching the Black Bears against this Albany dynamo.

“We had very good teams,” Vachon said. “The expectation was that you would win and you would go the (NCAA) tournament every year.”

And every team sought to upset the Black Bears.

The Great Danes feel the same way.

“We know we have to battle,” said Albany senior forward Tiana-Jo Carter, the program’s career leader with 152 blocked shots.

“We have a target on our back. That just makes us work harder, trying to uphold that success.”

Carter, from Naples and Lake Region High, was attracted to that success. She’s averaging 11 points and five rebounds a game.

THE ROAD TO A DYNASTY

Albany’s path to a dynasty began when the school hired Katie Abrahamson-Henderson as head coach in 2010. Until then the Great Danes never had a winning record.

Abrahamson-Henderson, a one-time assistant at Maine (1992-94), brought discipline and a physical style of play. The Great Danes were 16-14 her first year but lost in the conference quarterfinals.

Albany hasn’t lost an America East tournament game since.

“They play an in-your-face style, very physical,” said Vachon, who has been a Maine assistant coach since 2011 and the interim head coach since January 2017.

“And they had one of the best players ever in the conference.”

Indeed, Albany struck gold when it signed 6-foot-1 forward Shereesha Richards from a high school in New Jersey. Richards was from Jamaica and had little basketball experience. She was lightly recruited.

From 2013-16, Richards helped the Great Danes to four titles and was named MVP of the conference tournament three times.

Richards scored 2,440 points (second-most in America East) and grabbed 1,053 rebounds (sixth all-time).

In her last conference tournament final, in 2016, Richards scored 31 points in the Great Danes’ 59-58 win over Maine.

In the 2016 NCAA tournament, Albany got its first NCAA win, upsetting fifth-seeded Florida, 61-59.

NEW COACH, NEW STYLE

When Richards graduated, it wasn’t the only loss for Albany. Abrahamson-Henderson left for the head coaching job at the University of Central Florida.

Joanna Bernabei-McNamee arrived. She had been a head coach at two smaller schools, both rebuilding efforts. This time she was inheriting a powerhouse. Still, she brought her own style to the team, changing offensive and defensive systems.

“When rebuilding, everyone wants change,” she said. “When you’re winning, the kids don’t want change.

“But I’m a different coach. As a staff we made changes we had to do, what I thought was best for the program. It was tough for the returners and there were days I questioned if what I was doing was right.”

When Albany lost at Maine 84-71 in January of last season, the Great Danes were 9-10 overall and 3-3 in the conference.

“It was definitely a new coaching style and it took us time to get used to,” Carter said. “I think by midseason it finally clicked for us.”

After that Maine loss, Albany finished the regular season 9-1, then swept through three conference tournament games, including a 66-50 romp past Maine in the final.

With Richards gone, guard Imani Tate – the second-leading scorer in Albany history – scored 21 points in the final and was the tournament MVP.

GLORY DAYS AT MAINE

Maine’s powerful run from 1993-2000 has some similarities with Albany’s current roll.

Although the Black Bears had winning seasons previously, Joanne Palombo-McCallie arrived in 1992 and had to rebuild. In her second season she had the Black Bears humming to first place in the league standings along with a 20-7 overall record.

But a scheduling snafu – playing one more nonconference game than was allowed – disqualified the Black Bears from the conference tournament that year.

The string of championships began with the 1994-95 season, which also marked the beginning of Cindy Blodgett’s career. The dynamic guard from Clinton finished with 3,005 career points and four MVP awards from the conference tournament.

Two years after bringing Blodgett aboard, the Black Bears signed a stellar recruiting class that included Vachon and center Jamie Cassidy. Cassidy finished her career with 2,380 points (fourth all-time in America East), and Vachon established the conference mark in career assists with 759.

With Blodgett gone, Cassidy and Vachon led Maine to two more conference title games. The Black Bears lost both but received NCAA at-large bids. They used the first one to record their only NCAA win, beating No. 7 Stanford 60-58 in 1999.

After the 1999-2000 season, McCallie left for Michigan State. With Cassidy and Vachon gone, the Black Bears were in rebuilding mode.

Sharon Versyp coached Maine to the 2004 league title and a berth in the NCAAs, but the Black Bears haven’t been back since.

A BALANCED CONFERENCE

This year could feature another Albany-Maine showdown, although the league has greater parity. Binghamton, Hartford, New Hampshire and Stony Brook could be in the hunt this weekend.

“There are a lot of teams contending,” Bernabei-McNamee said.

The Black Bears edged Albany for the regular-season title on the final day of the schedule. Maine rallied for a overtime win over the Great Danes in Orono on Sunday to finish with a 13-3 conference record and the top seed entering the tournament.

Albany is the No. 2 seed at 12-4.

Albany is led by guard Jessica Fequiere (18-point average), but the Great Danes seem more balanced this time around with four freshmen contributing.

“We have a lot of newcomers this year,” Carter said. “We don’t have that one standout person.”

Maine also features balance. Sophomore Blanca Millan leads the team in scoring, while junior Tanesha Sutton, sophomore Julie Brosseau and freshman Dor Saar have made key contributions.

This could be the year Albany is finally dethroned, by Maine or another contender. But one thing’s for sure – no one underestimates the Great Danes.

Not after their run the past six years.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @KevinThomasPPH

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