The scenario was the sort of thing everyone associated with Stony Brook basketball dreams about. The Seawolves were rising to the occasion in the Holiday Festival under the Madison Square Garden lights, leading La Salle, a Sweet 16 team last season, by nine at halftime.
But visions of a splashy upset for the little guys from the America East evaporated in a disappointing second-half meltdown. The Explorers controlled SBU big man Jameel Warney after halftime and pulled away for a 65-57 win Saturday afternoon.
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La Salle forward Jerrell Wright scored 16 of his 21 points in the second half and combined with 6-11 center Steve Zack to make it difficult to find Warney, who had 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three blocks but scored only four points in the second half.
Stony Brook guards Dave Coley, Anthony Jackson and Carson Puriefoy shot a combined 7-for-27 and failed to penetrate after halftime the way they had in the first half.
"We had a great opportunity,'' Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell said. "I'm disappointed we didn't take advantage. They bottled up our guards and got to the foul line. We're better than that.''
After shooting 51.9 percent from the field in the first half, when it led by as much as 12 points, SBU shot only 30 percent in the second half and was outscored 43-26. SBU made only four of its first 17 field-goal attempts in the second half as La Salle went on a 24-10 run, including 11 points from Wright, to take a 46-41 lead. "Coach told me to be aggressive in the second half; don't fade away and keep attacking the big man,'' Wright said. "We wanted to deny [Warney] the ball.''
Zack, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds, was the primary defender, but Warney always found himself in a crowd in the second half. He shot 1-for-9 after going 5-for-6 before halftime.
"Warney had his way in the first half, but we shut him down in the second half,'' Zack said. "We weren't stopping their guards in the first half, and they were getting easy dump-offs to Warney. He's a great finisher. But our guards did a good job in the second half.''
La Salle coach John Giannini added, "Warney is as good a big guy as we'll play this season. Steve really battled him in the second half. He limited Warney's touches, and he got them further away.''
Stony Brook cut a six-point deficit to 52-50 on a layup by Eric McAlister (11 points) with 4:54 left. But after a great defensive sequence to stop La Salle, Warney went up for a follow shot and drew contact but got no whistle.
The Explorers then went on an 8-0 spurt for a 60-50 lead with 59 seconds left. Six of those points came at the foul line, where La Salle was 25-for-33 compared to Stony Brook's 7-for-9.
Speaking of the non-call, Warney was generous, saying, "I probably faded from contact. It was a good defensive play by Zack to block the shot.''
In Pikiell's view, it wasn't so much that Warney struggled late but a case of his trusted guards falling short.
"We only need one guard to play well to win,'' Pikiell said, "but they all struggled tonight. That was disappointing.''