Reaching for an apt description of what to expect when Stony Brook and Vermont battle for first place in the America East Friday night at sold-out Pritchard Gymnasium, Seawolves coach Steve Pikiell said, "Mud wrestling." Truth be told, the two best mud wrestlers in the conference are SBU forward Tommy Brenton and Catamounts forward Brian Voelkel.
Those two should set the tone for a physical game as Stony Brook (18-6, 9-2 America East) tries to break its three-game losing streak to Vermont (16-8, 9-3). The winner will have the edge for the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, in which the highest remaining seed hosts the championship game. The Seawolves have received a waiver allowing them to hold that game at undersized Pritchard if they earn that right.
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With so much at stake, Pikiell is looking to his senior leader to step up. "Tommy has to play like Tommy, and he hasn't in the last two games we've played them," Pikiell said. "I think Tommy is a Player of the Year candidate in this league, but for us to beat a good team, he needs to play like one."
Brenton had 10 points but only two rebounds in an 81-73 loss in Burlington earlier this season, when the Seawolves allowed the most points by a conference foe since the 2008-09 season. In the America East title game last March at Stony Brook Arena, which is undergoing renovation now, Brenton had four points and Voelkel was named tourney MVP for scoring five points, grabbing 15 rebounds and dishing seven assists.
"It's kind of a perfect story going against each other," Brenton said. "I respect his game, and I admire it. It's going to come down to who can lead their team.
"We're not star players that care about our personal stats. We just play hard and do whatever it takes. He's a great rebounder and a great passer, so definitely, there is some correlation there."
Brenton likely will switch up defensively, going against forward Clancy Rugg, who had 19 points and 15 rebounds in the last game, or even against point guard Sandro Carissimo.
Pikiell wants him to be aggressive on offense, too.
"I need to step up if we're going to be successful," Brenton said. "If it's not me scoring off the post-up, it's distributing in the post. Last game against them, I didn't do anything. I was kind of like a ghost out there."
That's a haunting memory Brenton hopes to erase.