The experience of attending Stony Brook's first-round NIT loss to Illinois last March in sold-out Stony Brook Arena was an absolute revelation. With the bright lights of a national showcase on ESPN focused squarely on a major university whose name recognition doesn't go much beyond Long Island, it was a true happening.
Coming off last season's regular-season championship in America East, the injury-plagued Seawolves' basketball fortunes are down a bit this season. But ESPNU's cameras returned to campus for an 11 a.m. game against Maine on Saturday, and the decision was made to move from comfy 1,800-seat Pritchard Gym back into the 4,423-seat Arena.
"I wasn't sure they were going to be able to replicate the Illinois game, but they did a great job of getting people to come here and marketing the game," said star guard Bryan Dougher. "It was packed the whole game. It was a great atmosphere playing."
Swing man Leonard Hayes added, "I liked it. It was exciting. It was loud in there. You just knew everyone had each other's back, and you knew we were going to win."
Well, victory was in doubt from the time Maine jumped out to a 14-2 lead until the final minute of overtime, when Dougher (20 points) and Hayes (16 points, 6 rebounds) combined to score 10 of the Seawolves' 12 points to pull out a 71-69 win. But in the end, Stony Brook ran its record on ESPN to 2-0 this season, including an early-season win in a game at Monmouth that tipped off at 6 a.m. as part of the network's 24-hour Tip-Off Marathon.
It's early yet, but Seawolves athletic director Jim Fiore is lobbying ESPN to have the 6 a.m. game next season on campus even if cost considerations force it into Pritchard gym. But it underlines the growing importance of TV appearances and the marketing that goes with it in helping to build the SBU basketball program.
"Our university did a great job of having this game here," coach Steve Pikiell said. "A lot of people did a great job of marketing, and then, the band and Jim Fiore and all his staff. They made it a great environment.
"You saw all the red. When I first got here, nobody wore any red. Ever. No one came to any of the games. To have that kind of environment was great for our guys. And the community was involved. A lot of people did a lot of work to get them there, and that helped us win the basketball game today."
It wasn't easy for sure. Falling behind by 12 in the first five minutes is tough on the nerves for any coach. But the Seawolves (11-14, 6-7 America East) came back to take a one-point halftime lead over second-place Maine (14-11, 8-5) and they pushed the lead as high as 10 points in the second half. Pikiell thought some questionable officiating down the stretch contributed to Maine's 22-8 advantage in points at the foul line and increased the degree of difficulty.
But his players overcame it all. "To be able to beat this team after spotting them that many points says a lot about how far we've come as a team and how tough our guys are," Pikiell said.
Stony Brook has won its last two games, including a road win at New Hampshire Wednesday night, despite losing senior Chris Martin, who reinjured his surgically repaired knee in practice recently. But Hayes has stepped up his play to help Dougher with the scoring load, and freshmen Anthony Jackson, Dave Coley, Anthony Mayo and Eric McAlister are showing signs of talent that just needs more seasoning.
"We're getting closer to where I want to be as a team," Pikiell said. "It's about defense; it's about toughness. We outrebounded them, and we made big plays down the stretch. I'm just real pleased we were able to do enough in a nice environment to get ourselves a nice 'W.'"