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Everything seemed to be going Stony Brook's way, too

Stony Brook players watch their NCAA Tournament hopes

Stony Brook players watch their NCAA Tournament hopes come to an end against Albany in the closing seconds of the America East Championship game, Saturday March 15, 2014. Credit: George A. Faella

Losing at home to fourth-seeded Albany in the title game of the America East Tournament did not seem to be an option as Stony Brook took anticipated home- court advantage in noisy, Seawolves-centric Pritchard Gymnasium on Saturday.

The odds had the second- seeded Seawolves 40 minutes away from their first Division I appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Regular-season play at Pritchard had been a virtual turnkey operation for the program with a 37-3 record since January 2010. Mascot Wolfie, the band, the fans and a 9-0 lead to start the game gave it the look and feel of a can't-lose scenario.

Yet it somehow ended in frustration in the championship game for the third time in four years. Albany won, 69-60, to earn its fourth automatic bid under coach Will Brown, a former Dowling star who grew up in Miller Place.

"I hate to sound cliche,'' Stony Brook interim athletic director Donna Woodruff said, "but that is still why they play the game. You have to be 100 percent that day. All the other ancillary things were in place, but you still have to play well. Unfortunately, Albany just played a little bit better.''

The larger burden of explanation fell, as it always does, on coach Steve Pikiell. "It's a hard thing because that's all anyone cares about now,'' he said. "It's not about regular seasons, it's not about building programs. It's just getting to March Madness. I'm proud about what we built. It's built to last; it's not a one-and-done type of deal.''

But it is a one-bid conference. Regular-season champion Vermont likely will secure the only NIT bid, leaving Stony Brook to wait for a third postseason option. "Villanova lost the other day as a one seed,'' Pikiell said of the Big East Tournament, "so that tournament didn't mean anything to them. In this league, that's everything.''

Brown agreed, saying, "It means the world to everybody at our level to get there. If [Stony Brook] doesn't get an NIT bid, they deserve to be playing somewhere.''

Once Pikiell, who started in 2005, got the program through its growing pains in his early years, the main focus has been on meeting the expectations of March. The Seawolves lost as a fifth seed in the final at Boston University in 2011, as the top seed in the final against Vermont at Stony Brook Arena in 2012 and as the top seed against Albany in the semifinals in Albany last season.

Albany now has captured the title as a fourth seed in two straight seasons, upsetting Vermont and Stony Brook each time.

"Everyone thinks that's the birthright,'' Pikiell said of the bid. "Will has done a great job. Once he broke through, he got through a bunch of times. We're going to break through and we're going to go back. The first is always the hardest. You've got to play so well and you've got to get lucky and you've got to make shots.

"Home court doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to win,'' Pikiell said. "If they gave you 10 extra points, that would help.''

Pikiell said the elusive win in the title game is not about enriching his resume. "This program's never one day been about me,'' he said. "It's been about the university and what I would like to do for this university.''

Stony Brook has been to the NCAAs six times in Division III. It has been a Division I program since 1999.

Pikiell will not spend time lamenting the latest postseason disappointment, saying, "We'll talk about having another great season and trying to get that last candle on the cake,'' he said. "That's all you can do.''

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