SYRACUSE >> The University at Albany women's basketball team extended its NCAA Tournament stay in an improbable fashion.
The 12th-seeded Great Danes (28-4) trailed by 15 points at hafltime before rallying for a 61-59 first round upset of fifth-seeded Florida (22-9) at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse Friday afternoon.
"I'm very, very proud," said UAlbany head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson. "We went into the locker room at halftime, and I just asked (our players) if they were quitting because it's not over, it's never over. We can score in numbers and we can score big."
UAlbany was forced to play the final six minutes and 18 seconds of the game without all-time leading scorer Shereesha Richards, who fouled out with 14 points and three rebounds, with the Great Danes trailing 57-50.
The senior, realizing she could be witnessing an early exit from the final game of her career, said there were a lot of different feelings in the final six-plus minutes of the game.
"(I felt) a lot of emotions, I'm not going to lie," Richards said. "A lot of the calls, I thought, were ridiculous, but there was just a lot of emotions because I felt like I wasn't there for my team in the end, and I knew they needed me.
"They stepped up and did a great job. I'm so proud of them."
UAlbany was gaining momentum when Richards left. The Danes had cut the deficit to less than eight for the first time in the half, and Imani Tate and Zakiya Saunders were finding their touch from the floor. Tate, who finished with 28 points and eight rebounds, kept UAlbany close all afternoon.
UAlbany did what most inside the Carrier Dome would've thought improbable without its only WNBA draft prospect in the game. The Great Danes scored 11 straight points after their leading scorer departed for a 15-0 run that spanned 7:48 of the fourth quarter.
Tate hit four straight free throws to bring UAlbany within 57-54 with 3:31 to play. Then Richards' fellow senior Erin Coughlin pickpocketed Florida senior guard Cassie Peoples as Peoples tried to spin, and the 5-foot-6 Coughlin took it coast-to-coast to make it 57-56 Florida, with 2:34 to play.
"(Shereesha) has done so much for us every game she plays and we knew we had to finally do something for her," Coughlin said. "We had to give her another game in the UAlbany uniform."
Ultimately, it was the two youngest players on the Great Danes' roster that sealed UAlbany and Richards' stay in The Dance.
After a defensive stop, UAlbany worked the ball crisply in transition to Tiana-Jo Carter on the block, who tossed a wrap-around pass to freshman Heather Forster on the opposite block for a wide-open layup to give UAlbany its first lead of the second half, 58-57, with 1:47 to play.
Carter then found herself in perfect positioning when a ball heading out of bounds on UAlbany's baseline was batted back in by a Florida player and right to Carter for a layup and a 61-57 lead with 18.6 seconds left.
"It was amazing," Carter said. "I didn't even expect it. I think we were all a little surprised and shocked at the moment. I mean, the ball came right to me, and I was like, 'I just have to score.'"
On Florida's final possession, January Miller hit a layup with 0.4 seconds left to play, but couldn't prevent Albany from inbounding the ball and running out the clock.
Richards and Tate combined for all of UAlbany's 14 first-quarter points for a 14-12 lead after the opening frame, but Richards picked up her second foul with 50 seconds left in the first.
Florida took over in the second quarter, outscoring the Great Danes 24-8, aided by a 20-2 run, to take a double-digit lead into the break. For the game, the Gators outrebounded the Great Danes 39-28, including 18-6 on the offensive glass.
The Gators were led by Eleanna Christinaki's 11 points, while Ronni Williams added 10 points and seven rebounds. Miller also chipped in 10 points.
Erin Coughlin added seven points with three steals for the Great Danes.
UAlbany will face host and fourth-seed Syracuse (26-7) Sunday afternoon. The Orange defeated Army 73-56 in Friday's finale.
"Right now when I walk outside (the press conference)," Abrahamson-Henderson said when asked when she turns her attention to Sunday. "I want to do this for (the players)."