For a couple of minutes, it seemed all the hard work that went into putting Stony Brook into position to win the America East basketball title and all the energy and enthusiasm that had Pritchard Gymnasium rocking when the Seawolves built a 20-point lead over Vermont was in danger of going down the drain. With Maurice Joseph drilling four three-pointers in the final three minutes, the Catamounts climbed back within three points in the last minute.
But Tommy Brenton, who was scoreless for the first 39-plus minutes found the stopper and plugged the leak, scoring a short baseline jumper with 15.8 seconds left for a 79-74 lead. Joseph hit the last of his threes with 2.3 seconds left, but the Seawolves (21-7, 13-2) completed an 82-78 triumph that made them a bona fide Division I conference champ in coach Steve Pikiell's fifth season at the helm.
After the students rushed the court and Pikiell accepted the regular-season trophy with an emotional speech to an overjoyed sellout crowd, he allowed himself a chance to soak in the transformation on a campus where students have displayed the kind of apathy toward intercollegiate sports that contributed to the demise of Hofstra football.
"It was great to play it at home, and our students are learning how to be great basketball fans," Pikiell said. "It took time. My first game, I have a picture in my office, we played Columbia, and there were five people in the stands. I think Jim's (athletic director Fiore) relatives and my relatives were the five. Times have changed, and it's great to see the enthusiasm around campus coming out to support our guys because they work hard and they deserve it."
There's no doubt about that. Despite their brush with a potentially devastating collapse at the end, Stony Brook earned the America East title by sweeping the home-and-home series with Vermont, the perennial conference power. The Seawolves have the most explosive and diverse offense in the league, and it showed against the Catamounts.
Dallis Joyner was a monster with a career-high 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting plus eight rebounds. Senior Muhammad El-Amin scored a team-high 23 and kept hitting the big shot to stave off earlier Vermont comebacks. Bryan Dougher again was deadly from beyond the arc, making four of seven three-point attempts and totaling 18 points, and Chris Martin played a wonderful all-around game with 15 points four assists and three steals. Brenton was the leading rebounder with 11, and he scored when he absolutely had to at the end just before the shot clock expired.
Asked if he was worried his players wouldn't get off a shot in time and turn the ball over to Vermont with a chance to tie in the final seconds, Pikiell said he believed someone would make a play as they have all season. "I feel very confident with every guy," the coach said. "When we're in huddles, they all want me to run their number. It's a good feeling.
"In the past when I first started, when it was crunch time, they would all look in the opposite direction. Now, I've got five sets of eyes looking at me. They all want the play run for them, including the freshmen. I have a lot of confidence in this group. They've proven they want to win, and they like playing in big games. I'm excited about the different options we have rolling forward."
Usually, Pikiell won't let himself look past the next 40 minutes, which take place Sunday at New Hampshire in the meaningless regular-season finale. But the real objective now is to win the conference tournament, which starts March 6 at Hartford University and goes for three rounds. The finalists then meet on March 13 at the home of the highest remaining seed.
By winning the regular-season title, the Seawolves assured themselves of an automatic bid to the NIT, but what they really want is to win the NCAA berth that goes to the winner of the conference tournament. It will be tough to beat Vermont three times in one season if they meet again, and Maine and Binghamton split with Stony Brook. But Pikiell's team really does have a lot of answers for whatever questions its America East opponents pose.
"We have a lot of players that step up and make big plays, Pikiell said. "We've had eight guys lead us in scoring this year. That's unheard of with a roster of 11. We share the game, we play defense, and we make plays down the stretch. I'm just excited they buy into that whole team thing, and they really did tonight."
Pritchard Gymnasium wasn't always packed the way it was for Vermont, but that was the fifth sellout for a team that has won fans over by going undefeated at home in conference play and losing only once overall this season in Pritchard. Suddenly, the little bandbox the Seawolves have called home during the renovation of Stony Brook Arena has come to life. Now, the Seawolves can add just the right touch to make it feel even more homey.
"I notice going to other schools that everybody has a flag -- Binghamton, Vermont, UMBC," El-Amin observed. "And I notice in our joint, we don't have a flag."
But now, the Seawolves have earned their very own championship banner. It proves they belong in Division I.