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Steve Pikiell: 'Time to grind'
Despite being tied for first in the America East standings going into Saturday’s game against New Hampshire, Stony Brook’s road to a third straight regular-season title lately has been filled with potholes. Over the previous two weeks, the Seawolves didn’t threaten in the second half of a 10-point loss at Albany and then struggled to beat Hartford at home by four and score a five-point road win over last-place Binghamton.
So, the end of a 23-game conference winning streak at home in a 73-69 loss to New Hampshire Saturday afternoon at Pritchard Gym didn’t come without some forewarning. No one could have expected the Wildcats (6-17, 4-6 America East) to make a season-high 14 three-pointers in 30 attempts, but the Seawolves (17-8, 9-2) couldn’t muster their usual defensive toughness down the stretch to make stops. UNH scored on five of its final six possessions, including three three-pointers.
“Maybe it’s a good thing we lost today,” said forward Jameel Warney. “For the last two or three games, we’ve been fortunate to come out with victories. Now, we can look ourselves in the mirror and see who we really are.”
Who are these Seawolves with five regular-season games remaining? They remain one of the top two teams in America East along with first-place Vermont (15-9, 9-1), but they have been fighting injury and illness, and it seems they still are working to replace the toughness they lost with the graduation of Tommy Brenton, last year’s conference player of the year and team leader in rebounds and assists.
Guard Carson Puriefoy III came off the injury list after a three-game absence for a groin injury and scored a team-high 18 points but pronounced himself less than 100 percent. Coach Steve Pikiell said Warney is nursing a thumb injury and starting forward Eric McAlister has been playing through illness. A lack of practice time also has contributed to the recent inconsistency.
Pikiell credited the Wildcats for their unexpected shooting performance, saying, “New Hampshire had to make 14 threes of the 30 they took. If we did a shootaround with no defense, I don’t know if we could make 14 of 30.”
Yes, some of the three-pointers came from players who don’t ordinarily make a high percentage from beyond the arc. But that’s part of learning to handle adversity when you’ve been at the top of a conference as long as the Seawolves.
“We’ve been taking everybody’s best punch, and that’s what this group doesn’t really understand,” Pikiell said. “Last year’s group had more veteran guys that understood that. Everybody plays great against us. UNH played really well…We allowed them to have that kind of night, and they took advantage of every mistake we made defensively.”
With a week to prepare for the next game Saturday at UMass-Lowell, Pikiell is looking forward to extra practice time and healing time for the injured. The Seawolves must improve their foul shooting. They had a pitiful 11-of-20 performance at the foul line against UNH. It takes mental toughness to capitalize on those free points at crunch time.
Pikiell emphasized there still is time to achieve their goal of winning the conference regular-season title. That is important because it carries an automatic NIT bid if the first-place team doesn’t win the conference tourney and the automatic NCAA bid.
So, the Seawolves hit a bump in the road against New Hampshire. How they respond over the next three weeks will determine how well-prepared they are at tournament time.
“We’re going through a grind part of the year, which I kind of like because sometimes, you’ve got to grind games out,” Pikiell said. “I think we’re getting a little tougher. We’ve been tough [in the past]. We had Tommy Brenton, maybe the toughest guy in the league. We’re replacing those guys with some young guys, but we’re getting tougher and I kind of like that.”