STONY BROOK, N.Y. — The Steve Pikiell era reached its apex on Saturday morning at Island Federal Credit Union Arena.
All those tragic failures. All the heartbreak at the hands of Peter Hooley. All the ghosts dissipated when the Seawolves put together a 15-2 run to come back from down as many as 15 in the second half to win 80-74 and punch their first ever ticket into the NCAA tournament.
“It takes guys sacrificing, injuries, whistles by the referees; gone through every obstacle, but I’ve always believed in our program,” head coach Steve Pikiell said.
Jameel Warney, who seemingly carried the team on his back at times, finished with a career-high 43 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks to grab the Most Outstanding Player award.
“I feel like I’m one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, just being aggressive,” Warney said. “Didn’t want to lose. Didn’t want to quit, just keep on going.”
Stony Brook scored 53 points in the second half, making 58.1% of their shots and iced the game with 14 free throws to claim their first title. Trae Bell-Haynes led Vermont with 17 points, but the day belonged to Warney.
“Well I thank my teammates because I’m not the point guard, they got to get me the ball,” Warney joked afterwords. He added that Pikiell wanted him to get at least 20 touches, a number the senior was unsure he would get to: he made 18 of his 22 attempts.
Even when the Catamounts tried to stuff Stony Brook in a zone late, Lucas Woodhouse’s corner three-pointer missed, but when Ernie Duncan couldn’t corral the rebound, Warney did. The 6’8″ senior grabbed it one handed and tipped it back in to put Stony Brook up 75-72 with 1:15 remaining.
His senior teammate Carson Puriefoy added 23 points of his own and drew the crucial charge on Trae Bell-Haynes late that negated what could have been a three-point play in the game’s final minute and a half.
“We didn’t catch a break in the second half,” Vermont head coach John Becker said of the call after the game.
That’s as close as the Catamounts would come to mount a comeback, but Warney put on a performance for the ages, but the defense came back and shut down Vermont in the second half enough to pull off the win.
“We can come back from any deficit because we’re a great defensive team,” Puriefoy said.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey,” Pikiell said. “It’s so hard to win.”
After their 2014 loss, Pikiell predicted that this day would come.
“We’ll keep swinging punches, we’ll keep getting back to this game and one of these days we’re going to have one of those great great days at the right time,” Pikiell said after their 69-60 loss to Albany back in 2014, and that group will be the first group that gets us there.”
Even through the heartbreak of a loss last season at the hands of Hooley, again, though this time at the buzzer. It seemed the Seawolves could not get any closer to an NCAA tournament bid.
“Hey, nobody feels sorry for you when you lose,” Pikiell said after the loss last season. “Ten seconds. We played 34 games this year and it comes down to the last five seconds. That’s how hard it is to get to an NCAA tournament.”
They were 1.6 seconds away last year, but this year they finally came through and exorcised all the ghosts of failures past.
For once the breaks went the Seawolves way. Seventh seeded Hartford defeated second seeded Albany in the only upset of the America East Playoffs. That helped the Seawolves, after they drew and dispatched of bottom seed UMBC, to then beat Hartford thanks to the format’s re-seeding. Vermont drew first blood in this game and the Catamounts led by as many as nine by halftime, but after being down 15 the Seawolves rumbled back.
“We’ve been down plenty of points at halftime all year, I don’t think that we ever thought that we were out of the game,” Puriefoy said. “We’re a veteran group. We know how to play when we’re down.”
All the breaks in the second half appeared to go Stony Brook’s way. After being down as many as 15 at one point, the Seawolves came back and kept fighting. They did it by turning over the Catamounts and forcing them into tough shots in their ball screen offense. Rayshaun McGrew drained a jumper from the baseline to tie the game at 61, but Ahmad Walker’s give to Warney for the layup tied the game at 68 and ignited the home crowd.
If there was a year to do it, this was the year where the Seawolves could erase all the heartbreak. They compiled an 18-game winning streak and their first regular season championship since Warney and Puriefoy were freshmen. This time it meant even more: securing home court advantage in the America East Playoffs, a place where they lost just one game this past season at the hands of Vermont.
To avenge a 76-62 senior night loss on Senior night must have been in the back of their minds. Players like Warney remember those moments, he says that he gets motivated when he knows another player outscored him in the past. He knows to bring it and today he brought it more than any other player in the 4,009 seat arena. On this day, all the seniors brought the urgency to erase that senior night loss and grab the game that counted more.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Puriefoy said of the victory. “Me and Jameel were talking before the game, this is our last chance. We got to lead these guys and I think we did a good job of doing it today.”
Now it’s on to a new frontier in program history, a trip to the NCAA tournament and a chance to win a game in the round of 64 for the conference for the first time since Vermont beat Syracuse back in 2005.
“We’re no used to this, so giving all our energy, our emotions out,” Warney said as he and his teammates posed for photos all over the arena floor. “We got a day to celebrate this and get back to work tomorrow.”
Puriefoy saw his father cry as the senior did something no player had ever done, win an America East championship. The 6′ senior said the last time he remembered his father crying was when he signed his offer to go to Stony Brook.
“I couldn’t even explain it,” Puriefoy said of his family’s reaction adding that it was one of the “best moments of my life… I just want to thank everybody.”
Stony Brook’s dreams have now come true, now the Seawolves can play with house money when they begin their journey starting tomorrow with Selection Sunday. To the extent they can continue their run will depend on a favorable matchup and who strongly they come out to play in the NCAA tournament’s first round.
Of course this program has had plenty of athletic success outside of basketball, their baseball team made a run to the College World Series back in 2012, so it could be said making runs like this are in their blood.
NCAA tournament and Stony Brook: has a nice ring to it. If this is a conclusion to the Pikiell era on Long Island, it is the storybook ending everyone had hoped for; an end to their championship nightmares.
And it was worth 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.