Conditions were in place for Stony Brook to earn its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. The Seawolves' third appearance in the America East championship game Saturday was staged before an ESPN2 audience in 1,630-seat Pritchard Gymnasium, a place so loud that visiting Albany prepared by practicing with loudspeakers blaring.
When Albany leading scorer Sam Rowley fouled out with 7:02 left and the Seawolves holding a six-point lead, the table was set for the victory feast. But it was the Great Danes who overturned the table and lapped up the spoils off the Pritchard floor in a stunning 69-60 triumph.
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It was the second year in a row that Albany (18-14) went on the road to earn the title, and it marked the school's fourth NCAA bid under coach Will Brown.
After Rowley exited, the Great Danes tied the score at 52 on two free throws by John Puk. The Seawolves (23-10) led once more, but Albany finished the game on a 17-6 run that included seven points from tourney MVP Peter Hooley (15 points).
The key play came with 59.9 seconds left when Hooley stepped back to bury a wide-open three-pointer for a 61-56 lead as Stony Brook defender Carson Puriefoy III fell on the seat of his shorts.
"He drove right and hit me with his shoulder," Puriefoy said. "It caught me off-balance, and I fell and was out of the play. So he hit the open shot."
Desperation threes by Seawolves seniors Anthony Jackson and Eric McAlister missed, and the Great Danes paraded to the foul line to score their final eight points. Albany went 16-for-16 at the line in the second half. Stony Brook shot 9-for-32 (28.1 percent) from the field after intermission and was 2-for-14 from three-point range in the game.
The ending was crushing for Stony Brook, which has reached the conference final three of the past four seasons and failed to advance to the NCAA Tournament. "We didn't play as well as I would have liked," Seawolves coach Steve Pikiell said. "But I've got three seniors I wouldn't trade for anything, and we won 23 games and I'm not apologizing for that. We're going to be back in this thing again.''
Rowley (18 points) and DJ Evans (16 points, three assists) joined Hooley on the all-tournament team. Puriefoy scored 13, Jameel Warney added 12 points and nine rebounds, and Rayshaun McGrew had 10 points. Puriefoy and Warney also made the all-tournament team.
Warney scored only five first-half points and struggled to prevent Rowley from scoring on repeated baseline drives, and Albany's 2-3 zone made it difficult for Stony Brook's guards to get a clean entry pass to Warney in the low post.
"They're a big defensive team, they're physical, they play with a lot of energy," Warney said. "They were everywhere. We just couldn't make shots."
Puriefoy, who scored 12 second-half points, was the catalyst as the Seawolves went in front 52-46. Stony Brook missed 12 of its next 13 shots as Albany took control.
"When Rowley fouled out, we had all the momentum, but we just couldn't capitalize on it," Warney said. "Credit Albany. They beat us."
Warney's two foul shots gave SBU its final lead at 54-52 with 4:35 left, but Puk tied it with a jumper as Albany fought with tremendous heart to make up for Rowley's loss. Puriefoy's layup at 1:29 cut the deficit to 58-56, but Hooley responded with his three-point dagger.
The ending played out much as Albany's Brown told his team it would. Asked how often the previous week he told his players they had done something last season that Stony Brook never had done, Brown said, "You have no idea how many times.
"Obviously, every coach dreams of winning in blowout style. That doesn't happen in championship games, and I knew it wouldn't happen today. The one message I told guys was, 'Regardless of the score or the atmosphere, stay the course. Weather the storm. The closer this game was later in the game, the tighter I thought they would be and the more relaxed and loose I thought we would be."
Brown was right. He understood that the weight of expectations was heavy for an SBU program that has 70 wins in the past three seasons but no NCAA bid to show for it.
Asked to describe that pressure, senior guard Dave Coley said, "It's hard. It's hard, man. With the anxiety going on, the emotions, the will to win . . . "
He was unable to continue as quiet tears began to flow.