Mark Nwakamma came out to jump center on Senior Night Saturday just as he had for almost every game of his collegiate career for Hartford. Only when the referee tossed the ball, Nwakamma didn’t even jump, allowing Stony Brook to control the ball. The whistle then blew, Nwakamma shook hands with everyone and walked off the Chase Family Arena floor for the final time.
It was all prearranged, Hartford choosing not to risk Nwakamma’s pesky bone bruise on his knee with the America East Tournament looming Wednesday and both teams’ seeds set. However, it basically served to give junior Jameel Warney free reign he probably didn’t need, but his conference Player of the Year campaign was given a nice boost with 32 points and 18 rebounds as the Seawolves cruised to a 74-59 win in the regular season finale for both teams.
“He (Warney) leads the nation in double-doubles (this was his 20th) and he’s a good player and he was ready to play tonight,” Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell, who is from nearby Bristol (and played for UConn) and had plenty of family members in attendance, said. “He’s been down the stretch here ready to go, so excited for him though those are big numbers he’s so unselfish at times he’s by far our best passer and a lot of times he passes up shots. Tonight, he wanted to score.”
Hartford (as the No. 5 seed) will travel to New Hampshire on Wednesday, and of course the million-dollar question is whether Nwakamma will play. Hartford coach John Gallagher was adamant that he would, but as for how healthy Nwakamma would be, he didn’t sound terribly confident, just as the second half of this campaign has drained a bit of confidence from Hartford (14-15, 7-9), a veteran team who was picked second in the preseason America East poll (Stony Brook was first), but never did quite get it together this season even before Nwakamma went down.
“We’re going with him, so he’s playing,” Gallagher said of Nwakamma. “If he plays with a limp he’s playing with a limp. I don’t think he’ll play with a limp, I think he’s going to be fine. If you watch the Albany game (a close loss on the road) in the second half, he was cruising, that was the old school Mark. We got to get that back, and you know here’s the issue, when you run all your stuff for four years through someone and then they take him out of the equation, it makes for some minor adjustments, so minor meaning major.”
Here are my other three thoughts from Hartford, where the Hawks did draw 2,431 for their final home game of the season:
1. Karma favoring Stony Brook? – While you never know, the America East seems more predictable than most conferences, at least when a top team faces a bottom squad, so barring a major upset, Stony Brook should beat Binghamton at home Wednesday, but as the third-seed will likely have to win at Vermont and Albany to grab that elusive first NCAA bid. It is a tall order, but the Seawolves have lost in each of the last three America East tourneys as the higher seed, twice in the finals at home. So maybe it’s time to turn the tables, flip the script or whatever cliche you prefer.
Stony Brook (21-10, 12-4) has won six straight, and if not for three extremely poor offensive performances (at home against Vermont and Albany and at New Hampshire) would be atop the league again. But maybe this is where they want to be?
“We’ve been to the finals as the No. 5 seed (2011). We’ve been to the finals as a No. 2 seed,” Pikiell said. “That stuff, throw it all out the door. You have to play good basketball for 40 minutes to get your 40 more and seeds mean absolutely nothing. I’m glad we’re playing a home game (in their new arena), I’ve never had a home game ever in the tournament so in the first round or second round so I’m just pleased that we get the opportunity to play in front of our fans to a packed house.”
2. Can Stony Brook shoot the ball well enough? – Led by Warney, who ranks in the top 31 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, the Seawolves have been dominant on the glass, 20th in Division I in offensive rebounding (37.2%) and seventh at the other end (24.8%). With Warney and Roland Nyama patrolling the paint, Stony Brook is also 29th in two-point field goal defense (43.2%).
But can they score enough to win America East? Carson Puriefoy was 3-8 from three and scored 22 points, and they’ll likely need one more shooter to step up and hit a couple of big ones to prevail.
“I think we’re well prepared for games we have a young team, we start two freshmen and we have no seniors, so I’m always concerned with their approach,” Pikiell said. “They had a great approach tonight. They were ready to play. We’re on a good roll, we’re playing well. I like my team. I like my team a lot.”
3. Special Senior Night – Despite their struggles this season, this six-member Hartford senior class is the second winningest in the program’s 31-year Division I history (57 wins). And it’s about as geographically diverse as you’ll find anywhere. Corban Wroe’s family came all the way from Australia, Mark Nwakamma, Wes Cole, and Yolonzo Moore are all from Texas, Jamie Schneck hails from Wisconsin, while Nate Sikma’s family, including seven-time NBA All-Star Jack, came in from the Pacific Northwest (Bellevue, Wash.). It may have been the first time all the families were in the same place at the same time.
“It’s always a good thing to have family in town, especially my folks,” Sikma said. “My dad hasn’t been able to catch many games because he’s been coaching, so it’s nice to have him here.”
Said Wroe, “It’s fun because my family has never met some of the other parents, so it’s just great to see everyone’s parents and see what we’ve done and get to know everyone.”