On the outside, everything was right with the University at Albany men's basketball team Saturday night.
Inside, not so much. While the Great Danes could be seen celebrating at SEFCU Arena following the 80-62 regular-season finale over Hartford, their hearts ached for a teammate.
Sophomore guard David Nichols played 35 minutes against Hartford and scored 21 points after finding out his 24-year-old sister, Cecilia Coleman, died in Chicago on Saturday after a long struggle with leukemia.
UAlbany coach Will Brown said Nichols will fly home to Chicago on Sunday. Brown said he is not even thinking about whether Nichols will be back with the team in time for the Danes' America East quarterfinal game with Hartford at SEFCU on Wednesday night.
"I am not worried about basketball right now," Brown said.
Brown said Nichols first heard his sister was failing when the Danes were in Vermont for a game this past Wednesday.
"Coach and staff wanted David to return home days ago with no set day of return," Nichols' father, Donald, said on his Twitter account. "As a family, we chose for David to stay and finish regular season."
Brown said he gave Nichols the option not to play against Hartford, but Nichols wanted to go. Brown also said he informed the rest of the team about the situation in private.
"I asked him if he wanted to play, and he said he did," Brown said. "David is a kid who keeps everything inside. I made it a point to check on him often the last couple of days."
Brown said Nichols is tentatively scheduled to return to the team Tuesday, but he added, "We don't know if that is going to happen."
The Danes will be back on the court Monday for two days of preparation for a return match with Hartford.
The win Saturday clinched third place for UAlbany (10-6 America East, 19-12 overall). Hartford (4-12, 9-22) will be the sixth seed.
This is a rematch of last year's first-round game, one that saw the second-seeded Danes get upset by No. 7-seeded Hartford, 68-59. This season, just like last, the Danes had two lopsided regular-season wins over the Hawks.
Last year, UAlbany beat Hartford at SEFCU in the finale by 16 points. Then, without warning, their dreams for an America East title were dashed by the Hawks.
"That bothers me to this day," Brown said.
Brown said he won't use last year's shocker as motivation for this team. There are only four players on this roster — seniors Mike Rowley and Dallas Ennema, who were honored in a pregame Senior Night ceremony, as well as Greig Stire and Joe Cremo — who played extended minutes in that game. Nichols played less than a minute.
"This is a new year, a new team," said Cremo, who led the Danes with 25 points Saturday. "We aren't going to take anything for granted."
Hartford, which was 9-22 coming into the playoffs last year, will be a loose bunch Wednesday, coach John Gallagher said.
"We will be excited, just like we were last year," Gallagher said.
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