Stony Brook, who was picked by all but one opposing coach to be the America East favorite, came in out of sorts in their final pre-conference tuneup.
“You don’t always play great and we certainly didn’t in the first half, but I knew at halftime that we need to hang in there,” Seawolves head coach Steve Pikiell said. “They were making a lot of tough shots.”
Columbia came out shooting and didn’t miss. The Lions drained seven first half three-pointers and left after the first 20 minutes with an 11-point lead. It would get worse minutes into the second half when Grant Mullins drilled a three to put the lead at 17; their largest deficit at Island Federal Credit Union Arena since Albany finished a 64-47 victory with free throws last year. Of course this experience at Stony Brook is nothing new to Pikiell, last season’s opener saw them erase a 16-point deficit from the Lions.
Pikiell called timeout and from there, the Seawolves broke the Lions with a 26-3 run, capped by a long two-pointer by Bryan Sekudna from the wing. A 17-point deficit turned into a six-point lead over a span of nine minutes. That lead would balloon to as many as 12 before Columbia cut the lead with late buckets, but it would not be enough as Stony Brook finished off a 69-60 victory over the Ivy League foe.
Here are three thoughts from the Seawolves victory, as they end non-conference play:
Stony Brook, hardly panicking, finds their groove 24 minutes in: After Pikiell’s timeout, the Seawolves held the Lions without a basket on five straight possessions, producing turnovers on three of them.
“We’ve been behind a lot this season,” senior Jameel Warney said, who produced his sixth straight 20-point effort in the win. “This is nothing new to us. We just stuck together and started playing a little defense and the ball started going in, we started making shots.”
Warney produced 15 of his game-high 20 in the second half, after he sat the final six and half minutes of the first half after drawing the dreaded second foul. The 6’8” senior scored six of the 26 as the Seawolves began to find their footing from deep, erasing a deficit with two three-pointers and an alley-oop by Ahmad Walker that made the arena explode with emotion.
“Oh my god, it’s a priceless experience, words can’t explain,” Warney said of experiencing their second half run. “It was a great day, every shot went in for us. We started playing defense, the fans were behind us, it was just us playing the way we always play.”
Carson Puriefoy was a spark plug in the second half, scoring 14 of his 18 in the period and grabbing four steals. It was the Seawolves six second half steals that helped turn a deficit into a margin too far for Columbia to reach.
“They always play loose, they defended, I just said we have to string some together, they’re not going to keep shooting the ball like that and they didn’t,” Pikiell said of his first second half timeout. “We’ve been down. I don’t think this is a group that panics because of the score.”
Seawolves Find Their Toughness: Warney was adamant postgame, as he costed to another eye popping game on the stat sheet of what they might have learned over the last 40 minutes and 13 games into the season.
“We have a different type of toughness,” Warney said. “We learned how to win on the road, we just learned how to just play together and just make this a special team.”
The incarnation where Warney and Puriefoy, two of the three senior captains, have led this team has been known to produce when their backs hit the wall. This was the group, mostly the same from last season, that rebounded from a double-digit deficit on the road at Vermont in the America East Playoffs. A 17-point deficit at home appeared to be just another obstacle to overcome as they hit conference play.
Stony Brook held the Lions, who on average entering tonight score 77.5 points per game – best in the Ivy League – to a season low 60.
“We’ve shown signs of being tough, today was the second half we were tough, but we defended the way we’re supposed to defend,” Pikiell said. “So if you call that toughness, then that’s fine, but I call it doing what we’re supposed to do on the court: getting in stance, making it difficult for guys to score. We ran and pushed the ball in the 2nd half, which we didn’t do in the first half, and that hurt us, so I just thought we played more like we’re supposed to play in the second half.”
9-4 Erased by Conference Foes Looming: The one clear distinction at Island Federal Credit Union Arena was this was the Seawolves’ final tune up. This was their last chance before traveling to Binghamton on Wed. to get ready for America East play, where the top seed could earn three straight home games to earn an NCAA tournament bid.
“I think we’re extremely prepared for conference play, we played a fantastic non-conference schedule and we did this so that we would be ready for conference play,” Puriefoy said. “I think this team is very special and I think we’re extremely prepared for conference.”
The Seawolves were picked by all but two coaches, one of those because coaches can’t vote for their own team was Pikiell, but the bulls eye will be on them when they enter Wednesday night at Binghamton. Through the 13 games, Pikiell said he feels his team has seen everything they could face in trips at Vanderbilt and Notre Dame, to games on the road at Northeastern and Loyola (Md) among others.
“We’ve seen a lot of different things, but these are the games now that matter the most,” Pikiell said. “You got to go on the road and win road conference games, which is the hardest thing to do.”
The Seawolves managed to push the Commodores to overtime, but could not beat the SEC foe. They competed with Notre Dame until the Fighting Irish overwhelmed them in the second half, as did the Huskies up in Boston. Their best victory of the slate is a three-point home win over Hofstra at home and they have seen part of their tough gauntlet dip because teams like American and Lehigh have disappointed so far prior to Patriot League play. Pikiell said there was no particular design to the schedule, he just found as many teams that would be willing to play the Seawolves; particularly a senior Warney.
“I think we have a chance to be real good, I really do,” Pikiell said. “We have a lot of belief in this team. This team is very confident and we played every kind of team and that was something we wanted to do.”
“We’ve been tested, from a lot of different lineups and a lot of different styles and a lot of different defenses, so I feel real good going into league play. There’s not one defense that we haven’t played against or not one style that we haven’t played against… I think we’ve learned a lot from that and hopefully it pays dividends once we get to league play.”
Now it’s their time to prove it.
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.