ALBANY -- Coming down the stretch of another 20-win season, Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell was happy enough with his team. But it nagged at him that the defense wasn't up to his standards, so that's where he put the focus during a week of practice for Saturday's America East Tournament opener at SEFCU Arena against Maine, the conference's highest-scoring team.
Consider it mission accomplished for round one. The Seawolves dominated defensively in an 80-54 victory, forcing the Black Bears to shoot a season-low 30.9 percent from the field and clawing away 23 turnovers that SBU turned into a 26-8 advantage in points off turnovers.
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"All week, Coach stressed the need to pick the defense up," Carson Puriefoy III said. "His motto was: 'Men only.' We played like that."
Post man Jameel Warney, who was named conference player of the year on Friday, took it a step further. "We practiced having great energy all week," he said. "The last few games, we played like scared boys. Tonight, we played like men. The energy came at a great time."
Second-seeded Stony Brook (22-9) will face third-seeded Hartford (17-15) at 7:15 Sunday night in a semifinal. The Hawks beat Binghamton (7-23) in the fourth quarterfinal, 69-42.
Top-seeded Vermont (22-9) earned a 77-60 victory over New Hampshire (6-24) and will meet fourth-seeded host school Albany (16-14), an 86-56 winner over UMBC (9-21), which had a seven-man roster after several player suspensions.
A year ago, top-seeded Stony Brook was upset in the semifinals by Albany on the Great Danes' home floor, so the Seawolves have a feeling of returning to the scene of the crime. "We have a bad taste from last year," Warney said. "We wanted to come out, set a mood, take good shots and share the ball."
In the early going, Stony Brook's shots weren't falling, but it didn't matter because the Seawolves' defense was overpowering. Maine missed 13 of its first 16 shots and turned the ball over repeatedly against pressure. Stony Brook went on a 27-5 run for a 35-12 lead, with Warney and Puriefoy getting to the basket and totaling 13 of those points.
"We had an advantage on the inside," Puriefoy said. "We could post up Jameel and Eric [McAlister] and work inside out. We started off early inside and let the offense come to us, and then our defense created more for our offense. We just kind of rode that wave throughout the game."
When the Seawolves didn't score, they drew fouls and got to the line. The lead reached 27 points late in the first half, and a 12-2 SBU run to open the second half pushed it to 34 at 61-27. From there, it was like batting practice for Sunday's semifinal.
Warney (15 points, eight rebounds, four blocked shots, two steals) was a force inside and Puriefoy (14 points, three assists, three steals) was complemented on the perimeter by Dave Coley (13 points, five rebounds, three steals). Rayshaun McGrew (nine points, nine rebounds) played well off the bench.
The Seawolves held Maine (6-23), which was led by Xavier Pollard's 11 points, to 3-for-19 shooting from three-point range.
"We can score points, but it's always about defense," Pikiell said. "Today we forced 23 turnovers. We swarmed, we were athletic. Jameel was active with four blocks, and that gives us a different presence in the middle . . . I liked the way we approached it."
If he could, Pikiell would bottle that winning formula.