At first, it was just a nice novelty. Winning at Boston University Jan. 2 was a fine way for Stony Brook to open the conference season. Then there was another win and another, which led to last night, when Stony Brook proved that the whole month was more than a first glance.
By the time the Seawolves finished beating BU again, 71-55, before a juiced-up sellout crowd at Pritchard Gymnasium, Stony Brook was in first place in the America East.
And 20 minutes after that, the Seawolves already were downplaying it. "We've got a long, long, long, long way to go. We're a one-game-at-a-time program and these guys know it," coach Steve Pikiell said. "First place doesn't mean anything right now. At the end of the year, it means something."
Muhammad El-Amin, who scored 19 points, played stellar defense and grabbed six rebounds, said: "It means a lot, but we've got the target now. Everybody's coming at you, so we've got to be focused."
They won't say it, but they can focus on having a shot to be first in March. At least they are officially good enough to dream.
The Seawolves (15-7, 7-2) were more than good enough for BU (11-11, 6-4), the preseason conference favorite. Stony Brook took a 13-0 lead and never really let the visitors get back in the game. The defense was exceptional, holding John Holland and Corey Lowe, two of the best players in the conference, to a total of 19 points and 5-for-21 shooting.
El-Amin hit two three-pointers in the first two minutes. Chris Martin (16 points) made five of his eight shots in the first half. Marcus Rouse, a freshman from DeMatha, showed a big-game flair he developed at one of the nation's top high schools, scoring 14 points and shooting 6-for-10 from the field. Danny Carter added 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting, including two three-pointers. "It was real intense," Rouse said. "We were playing for first place."
While they were cutting down BU for a second time, the Seawolves also brought down the house on Alumni Night. In a 1-minute, 18-second stretch late in the second half, Tommy Brenton (14 rebounds) controlled an offensive rebound and slammed it home in one motion, then Rouse made a jumper, then another. The score was 63-45, fans were on their feet and hopes were as high as they ever have been for a relatively new Division I program.
"I gave them 20 minutes to enjoy it," Pikiell said, focusing on a road game against Hartford on Wednesday. "We've got so much season left. We're halfway through. We've got a million miles to go."
Still, they've come a long way already.
Stony Brook got some unexpected but welcome help from UMBC on Saturday when the Retrievers (2-20, 1-7 America East) upset host Maine, 56-55, on Robbie Jackson's jumper with one second remaining. The Black Bears fell to 14-7, 6-2, a half-game behind Stony Brook. Vermont (6-3) is one game behind the Seawolves.