After a home loss to NJIT (currently 9-18) on Dec. 28, Stony Brook stood 4-8 and apparently needing at least a season of transition after last year’s run to the America East title, graduating a strong senior class including all-time great Jameel Warney, and seeing the coach the built them basically from scratch (Steve Pikiell) leave to go to Rutgers with his top assistants.
On top of everything else, two of its top returning players – Ahmad Walker and Deshaun Thrower – were arrested in separate incidents and no longer on the team by the time the season started.
But the dreaded “rebuilding” didn’t take as long as most thought. While Stony Brook was surely not as loaded as the last couple of years, it still had plenty of good America East talent, and the result has been winning 12 of 14 since that NJIT defeat, and being 11-2 in conference play with three games remaining (and clinching at least a No. 2 seed) after finally putting away a stubborn Hartford team 66-54 at Chase Family Arena Wednesday night.
“I think it’s just guys developing and getting some consistency and experience, really,” first-year coach and former Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals said. “The biggest thing is we have a real true team, we have 14 guys – Andrew Garcia being the 14th who cheers like crazy even though he can’t play – that are accepting their roles and playing them. This team has great chemistry and synergy right now, and different guys have stepped up on different nights, even though Lucas has been the catalyst of the whole thing.”
— America East (@AmericaEast) February 16, 2017
Leading the way has been one of only two seniors (Kameron Mitchell being the other) that sees regular playing time in Lucas Woodhouse, who has somewhat quietly put together a possible America East Player of the Year type season: averaging 15.7 points per game to lead the Seawolves (16-10 overall). Although that’s only ninth in the conference, he leads America East in assists at 5.5 per game and is 19th nationally in assist rate (36.6), while sporting a nearly 3-1 assist to turnover ratio.
(UMass Lowell Jahad Thomas is in the top three in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals currently, so it might be tough for Woodhouse to overtake him, even if the River Hawks have a losing conference record.)
It’s been Woodhouse’s leadership and ability to take over games in one way or another when his team needs him that has been a big difference in Stony Brook’s turnaround. Woodhouse played two seasons in the Big South for Longwood before transferring back to Long Island. Last season was his first for Stony Brook and while he had his moments, the Seawolves didn’t need him to be on every night like they do now.
“I’m really a pass first point guard,” Woodhouse said. “I have to be aggressive in every way possible this year. That’s what we’ve needed to do to win, and that’s the most important thing.”
While Stony Brook will have a tough time repeating, especially winning at Patrick Gym in Burlington against Vermont (the Seawolves get a trial run there next week to finish the regular season), there certain seems to be a much better chance of a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance than there was two months ago.
“I think we just needed to win a few games to give us some confidence,” Woodhouse said. “Once we got into conference and opened up with a few wins, our team has been rolling since, but we still feel like we can get better. Right now, we just want to stay healthy, practice hard and short, and keep getting better because this is the most important time of the year.”
What else did we learn at Chase Family Arena on Wednesday night?:
- Beware the letdown
Hartford (8-20, 3-10) played without its two leaders scorers in Jalen Ross and Jason Dunne, both with right foot injuries. Ross leads America East at 20.1 points per game, so it didn’t seem like the Hawks would have much more than a prayer of hanging with Stony Brook. Yet an inspired Hartford team actually led for much of the second half before the Seawolves finally flexed their muscles, grabbed the lead, and pulled away, led by 15 points (and eight assists) from Woodhouse, 14 from Bryan Sekunda off the bench, and a double-double from Roland Nyama. If Stony Brook had not shot 11-26 (6-13 in the second half), they might have been in big trouble, which is a bit disturbing after a lackluster home win over cellar-dwelling Maine on Sunday. But a win’s a win as they say.
“I think psychologically it’s easy to have a letdown,” Boals said. “I’ve played in those games, I’ve coached in those games. The first thing I told our guys is (Jalen) Ross didn’t play last game and they won. Any time someone is out, someone else is going to step up. We knew we were going to get their best shot, and I thought they came out and competed harder than we did in the first 20 minutes.”
2) Just a few shots short
Hartford’s last lead with 39-38 with 11:50 left, and in the end, the Hawks just couldn’t make enough shots to get the job done, finishing 23-67 (34.3%).
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of my guys,” Hartford coach John Gallagher said. “As I told them, this game came down to one area and one area only: they made 11 threes and we made six. Long term, this could really help us, ironically, with our depth.”
Hassan Attia, in particular, was a real handful, as he finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes, including a couple of big dunks as the Egyptian junior keeps improving. The Hawks outrebounded Stony Brook 43-37 (although they only shot 3 free throws), including 16 offensive (38.1%) something that would have been unheard of in past seasons. Everyone that saw the floor Wednesday should return next season.
— Hartford Hawks (@HartfordHawks) February 16, 2017
3) Maybe a preview?
Hartford has probably done enough to hold off Maine for last place and avoiding unbeaten Vermont in the America East quarterfinals in two weeks. The Hawks take on Binghamton next Wednesday, which could decide which team is No. 6 and which is No. 7 seed in the conference tournament. If it’s No. 7, Hartford will go back to Stony Brook, which made this game an interesting test case. You may remember Hartford pulled one of the shockers of the campaign by upsetting three-time defending champ Albany on their floor in the America East quarterfinals last season.
“I was throwing different defenses out there to see what they were going to run,” Gallagher said. “I think everybody’s that’s in this thing wants to stay out of Patrick Gymnasium and Vermont in the first game. That first night you want to be somewhere else other than Vermont, and that’s just a credit to how well they’re playing rather than disrespect to someone else.”