Where do you start after Peter Hooley’s prayer with 1.6 seconds left gave Albany its third straight America East title over Stony Brook in Saturday’s title game?
With Stony Brook and coach Steve Pikiell? Crushed. Devastated. Dumbfounded.
How could it happen again? Four times the Seawolves were one hurdle from the NCAA Tournament in the last six years and now four times they tripped over it, this time with the tip of their sneaker as it looked like they were well over it and ready to celebrate.
It was the third straight season Albany finished them in the America East Tournament, and the exorcism of the demons was all but complete, leading 49-42 with 1:50 left. The Seawolves (23-11) led for 19:58.4 of the second half, but a missed free throw here and a turnover there gave Albany one last shot.
Trailing 50-48, Ray Sanders threw up a wild shot that got nothing but backboard with five seconds left. From there? Well, I don’t know what you believe in, but I don’t think Stony Brook had a chance. The ball ricocheted off Mike Rowley’s arm straight backward to the top of the key where Hooley was waiting. You probably know Hooley’s backstory, but the abridged version: his mother Sue’s colon cancer becoming terminal, he went back to Australia to be with her in the last couple weeks of her life.
After missing a month and 10 games, Hooley returned and has slowly worked his way back to the form that made him a preseason All-Conference selection, even as it was extremely difficult to concentrate 100% on basketball. But as the ball caromed to Hooley at the three-point line, there was no doubt, he was hitting the winner.
“I don’t think we could have drawn up a more fitting ending then for the ball to end up in Peter Hooley’s hands, for him to let it go and for Sue to jump out and slam dunk it through the hoop for us,” an emotional Albany coach Will Brown, who is now headed to his fifth NCAA Tournament, said. “Once I saw it was in Peter’s hands and once I saw it come out of his hands, I knew it was going in.”
Said Hooley: “I saw it rolling toward me and I just shot it up. When you’ve got angels watching you, you can do anything.”
Up to the final shot, Hooley was just 2-12 from the field. In fact, Albany’s top three scorers (Hooley, Evan Singletary, and Sam Rowley) finished a combined 13-45 from the field as Stony Brook’s defense was phenomenal throughout and probably deserved to win. But it didn’t happen. Again.
By any other standard, Pikiell has done as remarkable job as anyone in the country. He basically started the Stony Brook program from scratch and has now posted four straight 20-win seasons and five in six seasons, posting a 74-21 conference record in that span. And yet, by the cruel rules of the mid-major college basketball world, he’s never accomplished the ultimate goal. Surely, this will be the toughest of the four losses in the last five years to swallow (and the fifth year, they were the top seed, only to upset by Albany, of course, in the semis). Pikiell is also one of the most respected coaches by his peers, three-time America East Coach of the Year, Stony Brook’s winningest coach at any level, but here comes the however that will stick until they can put an NCAA banner up in Stony Brook.
“Hey, nobody feels sorry for you when you lose,” Pikiell said. “Ten seconds. We played 34 games this year and it comes down to the last five seconds. That’s how hard it is to get to an NCAA Tournament. But I wouldn’t trade this team for anything. This team’s been together, they’ve been resilient, tough. You don’t have to feel bad for us, we have no seniors. We do it the hard way. There are seven other teams in the league that would like to be in our position. To their credit, Albany made one more play than we did. That’s how close you are.”
Jameel Warney and Carson Puriefoy carried the Seawolves with 20 and 23 points, respectively (or 86% of their points), with Warney dominating the first half in the paint and Puriefoy hitting some massive shots after Albany had switched to zone in the second half. Yet, they each had chances at the free throw line (Stony Brook finished 10-19) to extend the Stony Brook lead in the final two minutes and didn’t.
Stony Brook scored just two points in the game’s first nine minutes, but led 20-16 at the half thanks to 12 points from Warney, and they were able to milk that advantage right to the finish line. But they never got to it. Hooley’s game-winner was Albany’s first three-pointer of the day after nine straight misses, and they shot just 31.1% (19-61).
Again, a Stony Brook crowd which traveled in force to Albany will go home stunned. And now it seems inhumanely cruel that Pikiell and the program will have to wait yet another year to pick themselves up and try again. But that’s sports. And that’s life.
“This team has been awesome all year,” Pikiell said. “This team fought. They’ve been great. They’ve been awesome. We’re going to work hard to get back here and we’ll do that starting tomorrow. What else can you do?”
But there’s the other side, of course. The thrill of victory of Hooley falling to his knees in tears as the student body storms the SEFCU Arena court in delight, and someone wraps an Australian flag around Hooley.
You couldn’t write a script any better.
“You dream of a moment like that as a kid,” Hooley said. “It couldn’t be much more perfect.”
The human drama of college basketball in March.