STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- Perhaps the Stony Brook Seawolves will have some better luck next March, after they move into their newly refurbished Stony Brook Arena (formerly the USB Sports Complex) next season.
In terms of finally reaching the NCAA tournament, nothing else has worked thus far -- not the Seawolves’ America East Conference regular three season titles (2010, ’12, ’13) in four years; nor their recent three trips to the finals of the America East tournament (2011, ’12, 14); and not even hosting the league championship game on their home floor for the second time in three seasons.
Just as they did in the America East title game at the USB Sports Complex two years ago, the second-seeded Seawolves (23-10, 15-4 America East) came up a win short of reaching the Big Dance for the first time, while losing, 69-60, to the fourth-seeded Albany Great Danes (18-14, 12-7 America East) in the final men’s basketball game at Pritchard Gymnasium on Saturday.
Albany, meanwhile, after becoming the lowest-seeded team to win the America East tournament (as a four seed) last year, repeated the same feat while knocking Stony Brook out for a second straight season (the fourth-seeded Great Danes beat the top-seeded Seawolves by two points in the semifinals last year season, one year after Stony Brook did the same to Albany, with the schools seeded the same).
Late in the game, the Seawolves appeared to be in good shape, leading by six points, with the game’s high scorer, Albany’s Australian-born, junior forward Sam Rowley (18 points on 9-of-11 shooting), fouling out with 7:02 to play.
But while Rowley kept the Great Danes close to that point, fellow Aussie, sophomore guard Peter Hooley (15 points) -- the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player -- after a rough 2-for-13 start from the field, made his last two shots and scored seven points during a game-turning 15-4 run that gave the Great Danes the lead for good, 61-56, with 1:04 remaining.
Hooley led all scorers in the tournament with 71 points over three games, for a 23.7 per-game average to head an All-Tournament Team that included Rowley and senior point guard D.J. Evans (16 points, including 12 in the first half), as well as Stony Brook’s two sophomore New Jersey products -- guard Carson Puriefoy (13 points) and forward Jameel Warney (12 points, team-high 9 rebounds).
Senior forward Gary Johnson, who shot just 1-for-5, but who scored eight points while grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds, made six straight free throw attempts over a 24-second span in the final minute to seal Albany’s fourth trip to the NCAA tournament. Each of those appearances have come since 2006, as the Great Danes, who were the last America East team to win consecutive tournament titles (2006-07) did so again.
While head coach Will Brown (a Long Island native of nearby Miller Place, NY) was confident about his team’s hottest stretch (five wins in six games) of the season prior to tipoff, the lone loss in that period was in the regular season final for each team, when the Seawolves overcame a 10-point deficit to win by five points, thirteen days earlier.
A 9-0 Stony Brook lead did nothing to keep Brown’s self-assurance at a high level, but after he a called timeout, Brown’s players restored his faith by scoring the next 10 points to ignite a 20-5 run that put moved Albany head, 20-14, just past the midpoint of the opening half.
“We know it’s a long game.” Rowley said. “One run does not make a game. That obviously wasn’t the way that we planned on starting the game, but we knew that our shots were going to fall, that we were going to find a rhythm and that happened within the next few minutes.”
Brown added, “I had four or five Stony Brook fans come up to me and say, ‘Coach, thank you for beating Vermont. Thank you!’ I bit my tongue and inside I’m thinking, ‘Say that to me after this game.’ We weren’t happy to be here. We came here to win. These kids [and]… my assistants prepared like champions… we were ready and we wanted this badly.”
Dave Coley (nine points, eight rebounds), a senior guard from Brooklyn, NY, scored on a layup to cap a spurt of seven straight Seawolf points, to put the home team up, 21-20, before Evans reached his 12th point with a left-wing 3-pointer to regain the lead for the Great Danes, 23-21.
Rowley later broke a 27-27 tie before Hooley (3-for-7 from 3-point range) made his first shot from behind the arc, to give Albany a 32-27 lead.
Down 34-31 at halftime, and 38-34, after another Rowley jumper almost five minutes into the second half, the Seawolves scored 10 consecutive points -– half of them by Puriefoy-- to lead, 44-38, with 11:29 left.
However, the Great Danes answered with the next eight points -- half by Rowley -- to go back up, 46-44, less than three minutes later.
Yet in a game of runs, the Seawolves came back with eight straight points -- five from Puriefoy -- to lead, 52-46.
During that stretch, Rowley fouled was called for his fourth personal foul, with 8:07 to go. Just 1:05 later, he fouled out while battling for a loose ball off of a missed 3-pointer by Hooley.
That’s when Albany, in an intimate and hostile environment, without Rowley, and with history on Stony Brook’s side, dug deep, especially defensively.
The Seawolves’ next field goal didn’t come until more than 5½ minutes later, when Puriefoy answered a tough layup through traffic by Hooley by hitting a jumper with 1:30 left, to keep Stony Brook within 58-56.
On the next trip, Hooley drained a right-wing 3-pointer that gave the Great Danes a five-point lead and some breathing room.
Free throws by Johnson provided the next four points, to extend Albany’s lead to 65-56, in the final minute, and the Seawolves -- which shot just 28.1 percent (9-for-32) in the second half after making 54.2 percent (13-of-24) of their shots in the opening frame -- never got closer than seven points thereafter.
Earlier, senior center John Puk scored six of his eight points while no one else scored for the Great Danes.
Puk tied the game, 52-52, on two free throws, then made a tough turnaround jumper for the right blocks off of a right corner entry pass from Evans, to knot things up again, at 54-apeice, before he grabbed an offensive rebound, drew a foul, and made two more foul shots, to put Albany ahead to stay, 56-54, with 2:32 left.
Although teams hosting the America East championship game are 25-6, home teams have lost the past three title games in the league, with the Great Danes being responsible for two of those occasions.
Those weren’t the only difficult odds for gritty Albany -- which made 18 of 19 foul shots, including all 16 of its free throw attempts in the second half -- foul to overcome.
“My deli sandwich and my pizza that I’m going to eat on the bus ride home are going to taste so much better,” Brown joked “That’s what I miss about Long Island – delis, pizza, bagels. I don’t miss the traffic, but winning here is special because it was a championship and because not too many teams win here.”
Stony Brook finished 61-19 (.763) at Pritchard since moving back there in 2008, and the Seawolves had won 37 of their previous 40 games in the cozy 1,700-seat gym. However, including the title game loss to the Great Danes, three of the four losses in Stony Brook’s final 41 games at Pritchard occurred this season.
Trying to remain upbeat, Pikiell said. “I’m disappointed for our whole university… but it’s not our birthright. We’ve got to win that [championship] game… and it’s hard to get to this game, it’s hard to win it and you’ve got to play well. And you’ve got to have a [day] where you’re making some shots. And we didn’t. We didn’t make the plays when we needed to.”
Pikiell felt most sorry for his seniors.
“They won 25 games last year, 23 games this year, [two years ago], they won 22.” He said. “It’s not good enough at this level… they’ve done a lot, but [the question will be about not making the] NCAA tournament. That’s the world we live in now, and I understand that. I take all the responsibility. It’s not those guys. Those guys are great. But [the NCAA tournament] is all anyone wants to talk about… you have to win this tournament. That’s how one-bid leagues are judged… we’ll keep getting back to this game. One of these days, we’re going to have one of those great days at the right time… Stony Brook’s good and we’re going to continue to be good.”
Graciously, Brown said, “I’d like to congratulate Stony Brook and Steve Pikiell on a tremendous season. I’ve got a lot of respect for Steve and how he’s built this program. He’s done it the right way, with quality kids and he’s got a great staff. One loss doesn’t change all he’s accomplished and what they’ve accomplished as a program… hopefully, they get an NIT bid, and if they don’t, they deserve to be playing somewhere next week.”