Circle No Longer Flat For Pikiell And Stony Brook

STONY BROOK – I’m not sure how much Carson Puriefoy and Jameel Warney have taken advantage of Stony Brook’s nationally respected philosophy department in their time on Long Island, but perhaps Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were ringing through the heads of the sold-out crowd at Island Federal Credit Union Arena early in the second half Saturday morning.

“Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done we will do we will do over and over again – forever,” Nietzsche once wrote (which Puriefoy or Warney also could have picked up if they were True Detective fans). When Darren Payen hit a short jumper to put Vermont up 48-33 with 15:15 left, that circle was as flat as the crowd.

Stony Brook could finally celebrate its first NCAA Tournament berth after Saturday's win

Stony Brook could finally celebrate its first NCAA Tournament berth after Saturday’s win

It was happening again.

But Warney and Puriefoy knew that, at least in college athletics, the circle could not possibly be flat. Their college eligibility after this season is over is finished, and while the NIT beckoned regardless, both Warney and Puriefoy had been there, done that, got the accompanying T-shirt.

And so, the two seniors took history, philosophy, sociology, and any other number of subjects into their own hands and started the Seawolves back. What does it take to straighten out a flat circle? How about 43 points and 10 rebounds from perhaps the best player the school has ever seen? Or 23 more from a kid whose final two choices were Stony Brook and the team they were up against on Saturday?

Four years ago, Vermont came to then Stony Brook Arena as underdogs in what appeared like a passing of the America East torch. The Catamounts were still solid under new coach John Becker, but the Seawolves rise to power from Division I infants (with a record to match) to conference powerhouse in seven years under Pikiell only needed a coronation.

They wouldn’t get it, of course, as the Catamounts took the trophy back on the ferry with them across Long Island Sound with a 51-43 defensive masterpiece in which the Seawolves never really get started. We don’t have to relive the rest of the postseason history here, a subject that has gotten more and more adversarial over time for Pikiell. Right or wrong (probably wrong, but hey), we are judged by what we do in March in one-bid college basketball leagues.

But let’s go back to that Vermont game in 2012 for a second, shall we? Seem like yesterday to you? However, neither Warney nor Puriefoy was on that roster, both seniors in high school. Warney had spurned a couple of major offers, but there was no way to project how dominant he would be when he came to Stony Brook.

In seemingly the blink of an eye, their college careers have zipped by and just when it looked like an NCAA Tournament berth would elude them just as it had every Stony Brook player that had come before them (Division I at least), Warney scored four straight points to cut the Vermont lead to 11 and Puriefoy followed with what was perhaps the biggest shot of the season, a three that not only cut the Vermont lead to eight, but also got the crowd to believe the circle may not be so flat, and also made the Catamounts at least give token respect to someone other than Warney.

Puriefoy also made six straight free throws to seal the win, and while Warney – whose performance Saturday was an all-timer, especially given the stakes – will deservedly get most of the credit, but without Puriefoy, Stony Brook likely doesn’t win Saturday (or probably grab the regular season America East title).

Jameel Warney holds aloft the America East title trophy.

Jameel Warney holds aloft the America East title trophy.

Pikiell afterward talked about how many people it took to make Stony Brook the program it is, and unless you work at Stony Brook or are a member of her family, you probably don’t know the name Courtney Sanfelippo. She is currently the Assistant Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Development, and when she was an assistant five years ago, she was cited as one of the biggest reasons by the Puriefoy family why Carson chose Stony Brook, they felt comfortable with the academic support he would receive.

It takes a village to raise a basketball team after all, and we don’t have space to mention them all here, but assistant coach Jay Young has been with Pikiell since the beginning at Stony Brook, and been with him through the highs and March lows.

Pikiell, for one, was fed up with the attention being played to the flat circle idea, and it’s hard to blame him too much, even if it would make for a better story if he broke down in tears or something.

“It’s been a blessing,” Pikiell said. “I’ve played in a championship game in almost every year the past few years and a lot of guys would love to be in our shoes. You have to go through the journey if you want to do it. This program has never been about me, it’s about our players, when they play well enough to win, we win. Everyone else is worried about that stuff. I’ve talked about the 99 other things we have done, everyone else talks about the one thing we haven’t. It’s hard to do. But I’ve always believed in our program and our kids.”

Pikiell would tell you he knows the circle isn’t flat because he went 4-24 in his first season (2005-06) on Long Island, scoring just 35 points (or eight less than Warney Saturday) in his first game, a lopsided loss at Villanova.

“We have a zillion former players and they started the thing,” Pikiell said. “It’s great to have the alums and former players back. It takes everyone to go to one NCAA Tournament. The first game we played in front of 172 people and today they’re scalping tickets outside. It takes so many people to run a basketball program, too, and how hard they worked. You need some luck, too. You have to be fortunate and you have to be prepared and we were both.”

Ah, luck. Would things have been different if Albany hadn’t been upset by Hartford or if Vermont hasn’t found itself in such dire foul trouble in the second half? These are things that often get lost in the narrative, as they have been in the Stony Brook March defeats.

But even a defeated John Becker, who had some gripes about some interesting calls, still held a 15-point lead in the second half, and had one of his seniors – Ethan O’Day – playing at less than 100 percent, still admitted that it might have been about time for Pikiell and Stony Brook to have the moment their cumulative regular season success has more than deserved.

“Steve Pikiell is a good man and didn’t deserve all this pressure he was under, that’s for sure,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “He’s done a wonderful job with this program. Jameel Warney and Carson Puriefoy, I recruited Carson out of high school, he visited us, he’s a great kid, and we’ll be rooting for them in the NCAA Tournament.”

For once, the America East title trophy didn’t have to get on a bus or ferry but could stay right in Stony Brook. Steve Pikiell will never have to answer another question about his team never being able to win the big game.

“They (the players) didn’t have to say anything,” Pikiell said. “They’re tired of answering it, too.”

And so the flat circle opened up in a sea of red shirts storming the court after the buzzer sounded Saturday. Stony Brook blared its music to unhealthy levels before the game, put together a quite awesome NBA Jam parody for starting lineups and did everything in its power to help its team believe it could win.

But there was still tension in the stands, the kind that comes with annual heartbreak, that reached a palpable crescendo on that Payen jumper early in the second half.

Thankfully, though, it never quite enveloped Warney and Puriefoy.

“We were talking about this is our last chance,” Puriefoy said. “We have to do this. We told that to the guys and I think they came along with us with passion,” Puriefoy said. “I wouldn’t say it was ‘Oh, no, it’s happening again.’ I would say it was ‘We’re not going to let it happen’. We’re a senior-laden group, we’re a bunch of veteran guys and we know that we can come back from any deficit because we’re a great defensive team and a great offensive team.”

Sorry, Mr. Nietzsche, but the flat circle surrounding the Stony Brook basketball team is now gone. Ahead of it lies the NCAA Tournament. Finally.