Stony Brook Earns First-Ever Trip to NCAA Basketball Tournament
Break out your dancing shoes. The Seawolves earned their first trip to the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship Tournament, showing grit and determination in an 80-74 comeback win over a tough Vermont squad.
Stony Brook survived a hair-raising challenge from the Catamounts, trailing by as many as 15 before battling back late in the second half.
Judging by the scoreboard, it was Jameel Warney’s night. America East’s most dominant player poured in 43 points and kept the Seawolves afloat during cold stretches that threatened to disrupt Stony Brook’s chance to join March Madness.
“Jameel has dealt with all kinds of defenses all year long,” Coach Steve Pikiell said. And he’s by far the best player we’ve ever had.”
But the X-Factor in Saturday’s victory may well have been the wildly enthusiastic home crowd at the Island Federal Credit Union Arena, whose Stony Brook pride seemed to keep the Seawolves in the game, even in its most frustrating moments.
“I am immensely proud of and happy for our student athletes, especially our three seniors — Jameel Warney, Carson Puriefoy and Rayshaun McGrew — and Coach Steve Pikiell on Stony Brook’s win over a tough Vermont team,” said Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., MD. “This basketball program is remarkable on and off the court. They have achieved a 1000 APR [Academic Progress Rate] for five of the past six years, and thanks to an outstanding coaching staff, they approached this season with great determination and thrived under enormous pressure. I look forward to the selection show and to what March Madness lies ahead for our Seawolves. This has been and continues to be a truly inspired season.”
Before Saturday’s historic win, Stony Brook was touted as the best among the 53 teams that have never received an invitation to the Big Dance.
“There are lots of great universities who have never gone to this thing,” Coach Pikiell said. “I’ve always believed in our program.”
For the Seawolves and their fans, the victory was a statement. For the previous six seasons, we’ve hovered eyelash-close to March Madness. Now we’re there — and it feels like destiny.
Some years, some teams seem to be pencilled into collegiate basketball’s dance card all season long. For a number of reasons, this year’s Seawolves squad is one of those teams.
Coach Pikiell achieves goal
First, there’s Coach Steve Pikiell. He lifted Stony Brook men’s basketball up to become a top-shelf program. Statistics don’t lie. He led the Seawolves from a 4-24 record in their first season 2005-2006 to capturing the America East regular-season crown while compiling a 22-10 record only three seasons later in 2008-2009. That might have sufficed for some coaches, but as a former point guard for the University of Connecticut, Pikiell is familiar with championship basketball, and accustomed to winning. He wouldn’t rest until he got Stony Brook to that level.
After compiling a cumulative record of 192-155 during a span of eight seasons, this latest accomplishment adds an exclamation point to Pikiell’s already impressive legacy. With the historic win, Pikiell also met his personal goal to land a basketball on the third shelf in his office; a shelf he said would remain empty until the Seawolves gained entry to the NCAA Tournament. The other two shelves include first win ever and first conference title. Even before the win, the America East named Pikiell Conference Coach of the Year for the fourth time for guiding Stony Brook to its fourth America East regular season championship since 2009.
Stony Brook’s best squad ever?
But who is a coach without his players? Everyone loves to see a team win before graduating its senior crop of stars. This season’s team possesses a rare chemistry, something that doesn’t show up in the box scores or statistics. With the precision of a crisp no-look pass, these Seawolves are aware of each other’s presence on the court, and good things happen when the starters work their wizardry.
“As great as these players are, they’re even better people,” Coach Pikiell said.
Just as Walt “Clyde” Frazier elevated the New York Knicks during their championship years in ’70 and ‘73, Jameel Warney is leading the team to the promised land in his senior campaign, stirring late comebacks and fanning emotions as the Seawolves reeled off 18 straight wins during the regular season, the nation’s longest winning streak this year. Warney, a three-time America East Player of the Year, and senior guard Carson Puriefoy made for a potent inside/outside tandem threat. Warney is one of only three players from any team in the conference to net three Player of the Year honors in the conference’s 37-year history. He’s also Stony Brook’s all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocks and games played. Puriefoy, a senior guard, is no stranger to scoring either, with notable performances against Lehigh (six, 3-pointers), Maine (23 points) and Albany (20 points). For his efforts, he nabbed first team all-conference honors for the second year in a row.
Precious few teams attain greatness by relying solely on their stars. While players such as Warney and Puriefoy light up the box scores with big plays on a regular basis, it’s the supporting cast of less visible players who may provide a big play or a big game down the stretch. Senior forward Rayshaun McGrew shined many times during the season, tallying 16 points in the thrashing of Hartford on January 18 and leading all Seawolves with 18 points in the America East opener against Binghamton January 6. Performances such as these notched him second team all-conference and all-defensive team honors. Another player who shouldn’t be overlooked on the other side of the ball is junior guard Ahmad Walker, who managed to put up 19 points against New Hampshire on January 16 and average 4.1 assists per game during the regular season, personifying unselfish play. Walker’s 7.0 rebounding average per game earned him all-defensive team honors.
There is a sense of divine intervention as well. McGrew’s mother passed away this year and the young star played championship caliber basketball as if in her honor. And finally, there’s the magic of playing in a new arena. Stony Brook won its first America East title game during the second year in the Island Federal Credit Union Arena.
In it to win it
While earning a tournament berth may satisfy the Seawolves’ thirst for joining the NCAA Division I elite, you can be certain that these warriors have no intention of slowing down. Their sights are set on upsetting a higher seed and taking this journey all the way.
Join the Celebration
The Stony Brook community is invited to an open arena party Sunday evening to celebrate the basketball championship and watch the CBS selection show on the big screen.
Television coverage begins at 5:30 pm. Doors open at the arena at 4:30 pm and the team will arrive just after 5:00. The team, Coach Pikiell, the marching band, and the spirit squad will be there with the fans waiting to see where we’ll play and when.
Coach Pikiell believes we’re ready: “We’ve got some good ingredients, and we’ll be well-prepared for whoever we play.”
— Glenn Jochum