ALBANY - Carson Puriefoy II was hustling to pick up his tickets at the will-call window before settling in Saturday at SEFCU Arena to watch his son Tre and his Stony Brook teammates try for the second year in a row to beat Albany for the America East basketball title and the Seawolves' first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.
Pausing to discuss the Seawolves' prospects for victory, Puriefoy alluded to the pressure on coach Steve Pikiell after failing in three previous attempts to win the game that would put them in the NCAA. "You know who I want it for?" Puriefoy asked. "Steve. He's such a good guy, and he's done everything right."
Pikiell certainly has disproved the old bromide that "nice guys finish last." But after Saturday's 51-50 loss to Albany on Peter Hooley's three-pointer with 1.6 seconds left, he is 0-4 in title games and starting over again in pursuit of that first NCAA bid.
Pikiell, now in his 10th season at Stony Brook, has won at least 20 games in five of the past six seasons, going 130-67 in that span. Yet he knows that in the minds of some, those four title losses weigh more heavily against him than all the good he has accomplished.
"We played 34 games [23-11] this year, and it comes down to the last five seconds," Pikiell said. "That's how hard it is to get to an NCAA Tournament.
"I'm disappointed for our university. It's such a great place and they deserve to go to the tournament, our students, our team. I just wish we could have taken them there this year. No one cares because it's a win-or-lose world, but we keep doing some real good things with our basketball program and we're going to continue doing that."
Pikiell noted that this senior-less team will return intact, bringing back America East player of the year Jameel Warney and first-team all-conference guard Puriefoy and adding redshirt point guard Lucas Woodhouse, an exceptional ball distributor. But no matter who lines up for the Seawolves, they all feel that 800-pound gorilla weighing down on their backs in March.
Tre Puriefoy admitted it was hard not to think about how close they were to making history when they carried a seven-point lead into the final two minutes. "We're used to this type of pressure, but when you get so close to obtaining your goal that you have for the whole season, it does cross your mind," he said. "You've got to stay focused on everything that got you to that point. We tried to do that, but unfortunately, we came up short."
Albany coach Will Brown, now 5-0 in America East title games, counted on human nature to be his team's sixth man. "I'm not going to lie," Brown said. "I did tell our guys, 'Hang around. The later it gets, the more pressure is going to be on them in the big moment. They're going to feel it and taste it. Hang around, find a way, stay the course.' "
Warney and Puriefoy totaled 43 points, but the Great Danes held the rest of the Seawolves to seven. Brown said if anyone told him that before the game, "I would have been like, 'Yes!' The problem is, we still almost lost the game. For us to make one three-pointer, shoot 31 percent from the floor . . . and we only had five turnovers, which means we got a ton of shots. We just didn't make any."
Brown understood that his team was fortunate to pull out the win. "I do feel bad for Stony Brook because they played well, and they're well-coached," said Brown, who grew up on Long Island and used to play at Stony Brook's Pritchard Gym. "Steve has done a great job building that program. I have a lot of respect for Steve. He's a class act."
But Brown isn't giving the trophy back. The Seawolves will have to try again next year to earn it, and although the latest loss might serve as motivation, it doesn't make it any easier.
"We've just got to keep plugging away and doing what we've been doing to get back to this point," Tre Puriefoy said, fighting to contain his emotions. "I think we'll be able to do that next year."