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Steve Pikiell’s NCAA quest continues

Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell looks on

Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell looks on with seconds left during a game against Albany at Pritchard Gymnasium. (March 3, 2013) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

Over the past four seasons, no one in America East has been better or more consistent in the regular season than Steve Pikiell’s Stony Brook Seawolves. You could look it up.

SBU and Vermont each are 49-15 in the conference during that span, but the Seawolves won three outright titles to one for the Catamounts. The conference tournament and the battle for the automatic NCAA bid, however, is another matter.

Stony Brook (24-7) dropped to 6-4 in America East tournament games over that time with its heartbreaking 61-59 loss to Albany in the semifinals Sunday on the SUNY-Albany campus. Vermont advanced to its third title game with a win over UMBC and is 9-1 in tourney games over four seasons going into Saturday’s match with the Great Danes in Burlington.

The Catamounts’ only tourney loss in four years was against fifth-seeded SBU in 2011, but they stomped on the Seawolves’ NCAA dream last year with a 51-43 title win at Stony Brook Arena.

So, forgive Pikiell if he feels some despair because his team’s shortcomings at tournament time tend to overshadow the magnificent job he’s done since taking over a program that was at the bottom of the barrel in the America East athletically and academically and turning it into a perennial power that will make its third NIT appearance in four seasons.

“We had a great season,” Pikiell said after absorbing the impact of the game-winning layup by Albany’s Mike Black with 2.4 seconds left. “I’m disappointed for our university, but it’s been [14 years since the move to Division I]. Some teams go 100 years with no NCAA bid. We have three postseason bids in the last four years. Tommy [Brenton] comes here, and we do a lot of good things. But Albany was two points better today.”

Brenton, of course, is the epitome of the “glue guy” who does all the hustle things that help a team win. He was America East player of the year this season because opposing coaches basically agreed Brenton is the player they most would want on their team.

But Brenton’s struggles against Albany typified those of his teammates. “Tommy got four layups to begin the game and didn’t make them,” Pikiell lamented. “We missed easy baskets we normally make. But the third time around is tough, and Albany is good. They’ve won 23 games.”

Beating a good team three times in one season is tough enough, but the Seawolves actually were playing a true road game as the No. 1 seed against a team they had knocked out of the tournament three seasons in a row. Yeah, the Great Danes (23-10) had plenty of motivation to accompany home crowd support.

It also hurt Stony Brook that freshman Jameel Warney took a hard fall when his shot was blocked with 9:50 left to play. He had 10 points but never scored again and sat out 4:20 of the remaining time, including the final 12 seconds when Black scored and the Seawolves’ Dave Coley missed a desperation shot.

“He banged up his knee, but he’s fine,” Pikiell said of Warney. Pressed about whether the fall hurt Warney’s game, Pikiell said, “I think [Albany] took him out. It was a real physical game. Every time he caught the ball, there was a mauling going on.”

In the end, Pikiell was most disappointed with the Seawolves’ inability to keep Great Danes guards Black (16 points) and Jacob Iati (14) in check. On Black’s gamewinner, freshman defender Carson Puriefoy III was supposed to force him to go left around a screen, where the help defender would blitz and try force a turnover or pass. But Puriefoy allowed Black to drive to the basket instead of making him go around the screen.

It was a rookie mistake, and the Seawolves wouldn’t have had a chance to win without Puriefoy’s team-high 16 points. But in a one-bid league, seasons hang on such slender threads.

Call it an imperfect storm of circumstances that combined to destroy the Seawolves’ NCAA dreams – Albany’s home court, their own poor shooting and defensive breakdowns. At least, they still have the NIT berth.

“This group deserves to keep playing,” Pikiell said. “I thought we were as good as anybody in the league. But you’ve got to prove it every night. Tonight, we didn’t prove it, but we showed heart and resiliency. I’m glad this team keeps on playing. These guys will get over this. They’ll play in the NIT.”