Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell looked like he was reenacting Kevin Bacon’s role at the end of Animal House midway through the first half of Sunday afternoon’s America East semifinal at Patrick Gym.
Ethan O’Day had just gotten a breakaway dunk of a Brandon Hatton steal to complete a 7-0 run that put the Catamounts up 23-9. One of the best crowds in all of mid-major college basketball was screaming and Pikiell’s team had already used three of its allotted five time outs, so all he could do is wave his hand and say “Go!” to his team, which they likely couldn’t have heard anyway.
But while all wasn’t well, it wasn’t as bad as it looked, especially when the third-seeded Seawolves started the second half on a 28-6 run (34-8 if you extend it to the end of the first half) and then held off a furious Vermont rally to advance to their fourth America East final in five years, 79-77.
“They were making some tremendous shots,” Pikiell said. “They don’t shoot the ball usually like that. I just told our guys that our defense was good enough that if we hang around, we’d be OK.We were getting decent looks at the rim, too, but their resume hasn’t been that they’d make that many threes. We’ve been down 16 at Columbia, we’ve been down 16 at Washington, and our guys just hung in there together.”
Indeed, the Catamounts were a decent three-point shooting team coming in (35.3%, 127th nationally), but were 8-12 in the first half before making just 2-8 in the second. The transformation at the other end was just as stunning. Stony Brook has struggled on the offensive end (242nd nationally), but scored 1.43 points per possession and recorded a 62.9 eFG% (5-7 on threes) against one of the best defenses in the country in their gym.
Jameel Warney recorded what has become his usual 24 points and 14 rebounds, but the real transformation came from freshman Deshaun Thrower. Thrower did not record a field goal in the first half and had two points, which wasn’t that noteworthy because his career high was only nine.
Yet Thrower was 5-6 from the field in the second half, making all three of his three-point attempts and doubled his career-high with 18. Carson Puriefoy also scored 15 of his 17 after halftime as Stony Brook (22-10) suddenly looked like it would win easily when it was up 64-53 with 9:09 left.
“My teammates and coaches kept encouraging me to be aggressive,” Thrower said. “The shots weren’t falling for us in the first half and Coach kept telling me to shoot and that they were going to fall and I knocked a couple down.”
Said Pikiell: “You need an extra player to step up in these games between evenly matched teams and do something different, and he (Thrower) was able to do that for us today.”
Yet the Catamounts (18-12) buoyed by the crowd made one more run, and came all the way back to tie the game at 71-71 (much higher than anyone anticipated) on a Kurt Steidl three-pointer with 3:09 left. But Warney followed with a tough jump hook to give the Seawolves back for good and Rayshaun McGrew added one of 16 offensive rebounds for SBU (41.0%), a tip in to give Stony Brook some breathing room at 75-71.
“I was just happy that our team stayed the course,” Pikiell said. “In light of the barrage in the first half of jump shots by them in the first half. Foul trouble, no time outs, them hitting everything, we stayed the course, and I was real pleased with that.”
Thrower hit another high degree of difficulty shot with 25 seconds left to put Stony Brook back up by four. Puriefoy missed a free throw with Stony Brook up 78-75 and 13.1 seconds left, but the Catamounts threw the ball away without an opponent within 10 feet of them.
Vermont actually got one more chance when the Seawolves turned it over with 2.0 seconds left and the score 79-77. By now neither team had a time out left, Vermont tried to run a play for Hatton, who had hit a couple of threes on the day. When he was covered, it ended up with Ethan O’Day, and Warney was able to get a piece of his jumper.
There was some momentary confusion as the clock never started, but the referees quickly ruled the game was over and Stony Brook was off to the conference finals again.
“They (Stony Brook) made the plays, they were the better team today,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “I’m really proud of our guys, they fought all year like they did today. We’ve never been out of too many games, especially in conference. I feel bad I didn’t do a good enough job to help them win. I’m sad about our seniors and I thank our fans for showing up. They were great as usual.”
Of course, Stony Brook’s NCAA Tournament demons await next week in Albany, the Seawolves have lost three conference finals in four years, the last two at home, but there is less pressure this time around as the underdog, and the Seawolves have had no trouble playing on the road this season and have already won at Albany last month.
“This is a great group,” Warney said, “We’re on an eight-game winning streak now and me and Trey (Puriefoy) played great the last two games, so we’re just keeping it moving and we have one more. We can’t be satisfied with this win if we’re going to lose next Saturday.”