The Stony Brook Seawolves defeated Columbia 76-66 at Levien Gymnasium on Thursday night behind 30 points from Akwasi Yeboah and a lock-down second half defensive performance.
Stony Brook (4-6) trailed by 10 points at halftime, but started the half out on an 8-0 run to close the gap and then let let a fierce defensive effort do the rest of the work.
“I’m just really proud of our guys about how they came out of halftime and responded,” said Stony Brook head coach Jeff Boals. “We played a lot harder.”
Yeboah helped steer the Stony Brook offense through some choppy waters in the first half. The junior forward scored 17 points in before the break and then added 13 more in the second before fouling out. He did most of his damage on drives to the paint, but he also scored 11 points at the free throw line. His one three-pointer was enough to prevent the Columbia (1-8) defense from sagging off him too much. Yeboah also grabbed eight rebounds.
“He’s great inside and out and our guys have a lot of faith and trust him,” Boals said about 6-foot-6 sophomore forward. “We thought we had an advantage with him and kept going to him and we finished shots at the rim.”
Here are three more thoughts about the game.
The Lions defended much better. Columbia couldn’t get a stop on Monday night against Quinnipiac, but on Thursday it was the offense that ultimately let the Lions down. Stony Brook had to fight for its 76 points. A number of them came from the free throw line. First half foul trouble forced Jim Engles to go deep into his bench and the players responded. Gabe Stefanini, Myles Hanson and Jaron Faulds all played key roles off the bench in the first half. Later in the game, when Stony Brook got into the lead Engles deployed a full-court press. It forced a number of turnovers, but not quite empty possessions to get the Lions all the way back into the lead. They got within four multiple times, but not any closer.
“I thought defensively the effort was much better from the other night,” Engles said.
The key to Columbia’s offense is Mike Smith and that isn’t going to change. So teams should figure out how to stop him. Part of the reason the Lions couldn’t get any closer was their heavy dependence on their sophomore point guard. Smith once again played all 40 minutes; he’s played 89 percent of Columbia’s minutes this season, 51st in the country. He’s also carrying a heavy load offensively, using 28.4 percent of CU’s possessions when on the court.
“When I was at NJIT I never took my best player off the court, because everything worked around him,” Engles said. “So as long as [Smith] is playing hard and he’s executing all the stuff that he needs to be executing, no I have no problem with that. I know sometimes people question his usage rate and all that kind of stuff, but you have to go with the guys that you have and Mike is a big reason why we have a chance to be good, so you need to keep him on the court.”
Smith dominated play in the first half against Stony Brook, scoring 15 points on 4-8 shooting from the field, including 4-5 from 3 while also handing out four assists.
“We had a rhythm going in the first half as a team and in the second half the rhythm just went away,” Smith said. “Things just didn’t go our way.”
The second half was a different story. The Seawolves extended their ball pressure and moved freshman wing Elijah Olaniyi onto Smith after halftime. Olaniyi was a little shorter than I expected in person, but also quicker. He harassed Smith for most of the second half. Smith went 1-10 and scored just three points during the final 20 minutes, but he did have four assists and no turnovers. Other teams are going to find ways to take away Smith and other players will have to step up.
“He’s not your typical freshman in a defensive sense,” Boals said about Olaniyi. “He’s got great feet laterally. He’s long. He’s athletic. … To have him at the end like that tells you a lot about who he is and he’s going to be a great player for us.”
It appeared that the Seawolves were attempting to hide their weaker defenders on Nate Hickman during the second half and while the senior hit a few jump shots early, he finished 2-7 for seven points along with six turnovers. Lukas Meisner has shown an ability to hit shots—he went 5-7 from the field and scored 15 points—but the Lions need another player to step up offensively on a consistent basis.
Stony Brook’s point guards are still very much a work in progress. The Seawolves’ biggest question coming into the season was what type of play they would get out of the point guard position. Through 10 games the answer is a work in progress. All three players: Jaron Cornish, Jordan McKenzie and Michael Almonacy provide Boals with a slightly different option. Since his return from injury, Cornish has played the majority of the minutes at the point guard position. The junior college transfer is using a significant portion of SBU’s possessions while on the court. There were some bright spots against the Lions. Cornish was able to turn the corner and drive to the rim on a number of occassions on Thursday and finished with 11 points. On the other hand, he also committed seven turnovers, mostly when dealing with Columbia’s late-game pressure. McKenzie, a freshman, had five assists and no turnovers in his 19 minutes on the court, but he also shot 0-3 from the field. He’s just 1-18 thus far this season from 3 and 10-40 (25 percent) overall.
“Those guys are still learning,” Boals said. “You’ve got a junior college transfer and a freshman coming in and they both compete, they both battle and their best basketball is still ahead of them. They’re both getting better everyday.”
Almonacy provided a nice boost offensively before Cornish returned, but since then has seen his minutes cut significantly. It’ll be interesting to see if Boals decides to work the sophomore point guard back into the rotation if his other options struggle.