If anything, Saturday night provided the perfect reason for Stony Brook to panic about their ability to turn a regular season championship into a tournament championship.
In order to make their first NCAA tournament, they will need to – in all likelihood – beat two of the three seeds behind them, a group of teams that have either beat them or played close enough to cause concern.
The Seawolves hung on against New Hampshire, who was without Jacoby Armstrong (12.0 ppg), and beat the Wildcats on a last second defensive play. Their next game at Albany saw their 18 game win streak, then the longest in the nation, get erased by a 12 point margin. On Saturday Carson Purefoy’s three-pointer to open the scoring was the only lead they would have.
After the Seawolves closed the gap to 61-55 and Drew Urquhart made two free throws to get the lead to eight, Pruiefoy had a three-point chance that rattled in and out, and Stony Brook did not get any closer. Yet head coach Steve Pikiell didn’t want to lament on what this loss might teach his team.
“I thought we missed open shots, I thought Tre got the best look of the night to cut it to four point game, I think at that time and it went in and out,” Pikiell said. “We’re just going to have to play better, but what we set out to do is to win the league and get home court and we got that and today doesn’t effect any of that.”
While Stony Brook had locked up home court advantage all the way back on Sunday in the America East Playoffs after beating Maine handily, the margin of error in these next three games will be slim.
“We have to come in and just play the best basketball at the best time,” senior Jameel Warney said postgame of the playoffs. “We have to. We can’t have one slip up, because one slip up is us losing and now we’re out, so we have to play together as a team for 40 minutes. At the end of the day, at the end of 40 minutes, just be up by one by any means necessary.”
The first part of that statement by the 6’8” senior is a usual saying at this time of year, but could it be that the Seawolves best basketball is behind them? They amassed an 18 game winning streak, earning highlights all over SportsCenter and national attention. But the way this regular season has ended it could beg the question whether or not their “best basketball” is in the rear view mirror.
Now comes the playoffs, the sentiment of desperation that a class heralded on Saturday night as the program’s best now faces the uphill climb of doing what none other has in making the NCAA tournament. Can they make it in this form?
Even with the putrid 36.8% free throw shooting percentage on Saturday night, one problem the Seawolves have had all season is they barely get to the free throw line. Their free throw rate per field goals attempted is last amongst America East teams (29.7%) and 330th in the country. Though even when they get to the line they make 67.8% of their shots from the charity stripe, which ranks 259th in the country. Those problems became particularly glaring when the offense grounded to a halt against Vermont on Saturday night.
“We have to be better from the free throw line,” Pikiell said. “When you play in the one and done games, and they were good tonight from the free throw line, we weren’t. We were at home too. We’ve been good on the road the last few games shooting the ball from the foul line, so you have to make free throws and our guys are certainly very capable of making free throws.”
However, there is no guarantee that this team will suddenly excel from 15 feet away with their feet on the ground. Last season they converted 66.4% of their free throws.
The biggest problem the Seawolves have is they need to replace shooter Bryan Sekunda, whose season ended to an ACL tear on Feb. 17. In the last two games Stony Brook has made five or fewer three-pointers and in such games this season where they have made five or fewer three-pointers they are 5-6. Players not named Puriefoy or Sekudna have shot 32% from three (66 for 206) as a group.
“I mean, yeah definitely the loss of Bryan is tough, he’s a great player and we’re going to miss him, but that’s why we have other guys to step up,” Puriefoy said. “Coach always says all the time everybody has to be ready and you can get your opportunity at any time, but you know we’ve been through the wars, we’ve been through the battles and we know what it takes to win. We’re just going to go back into practice, regroup and come back in the playoffs. We have home games which is good.”
But make no mistake this was a resounding defeat and without four garbage time points from Deshaun Thrower, the margin would be even bigger, but even with them it is their most sound defeat since an 86-61 loss to Notre Dame on Dec. 8. In their two conference losses, the opposing team has wrestled control of the game away from the Seawolves and they did not find an answer to come back late and make it close. Albany, instead of using zone like in their first meeting, played mostly man to beat the Seawolves and rose to the challenge inside. Vermont on Saturday used plenty of zone defense and attacked on the other end, which helped set up an outside-in approach.
“I’m not really worried,” Pikiell said. “I think we’re good and I think we’ve proven we’re good, but we’ll prove it again, that’s what we have to do.”
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.