After pounding UMBC by 40 points earlier this season in Baltimore, it was only human for Stony Brook's players to expect an easy time of it against the Retrievers Thursday night at Pritchard Gym. Instead, they found themselves in an unexpected, ahem, dogfight for 29 minutes before taking the lead for good in an 80-68 victory.
It wasn't exactly a confidence-inspiring performance by the Seawolves (17-7, 12-1 America East), but it put them in position to clinch their second regular-season conference championship in three seasons with a win Sunday at Vermont (16-10, 10-2).
Stony Brook forward Tommy Brenton (pictured), whose passing and defense helped spark the Seawolves' comeback against UMBC, is looking forward to the hostile atmosphere that awaits in Burlington. "Well, I know the fans love me up there, so, it should be a great game," said Brenton, who has a knack for rubbing opponents the wrong way. "It's always a battle up there. We know that. It's one of the loudest gyms. They feel every call is against them. So, it's going to be a great matchup."
Asked how the Catamounts' fans display their love, Brenton smiled and said, "I get a lot of boos. I don't know why. I thought I was a nice guy."
With only two more America East games remaining after the showdown at Vermont, the two teams still could finish in a tie and Boston University (10-3) also could get in the mix. But all the tiebreakers will favor Stony Brook if it completes a sweep of Vermont. If the Seawolves finished tied with BU alone, they split the season series, so, the tiebreaker would be their records against the third-place team. The Terriers were swept by Vermont.
It's quite possible the Seawolves already had Vermont on their minds when they took the court against UMBC. After allowing the Retrievers to outrebound them and shoot 59 percent in the first half, they know what to expect from coach Steve Pikiell as they prepare for the Catamounts.
"I think the next two days in practice are going to be very intense," forward Dallis Joyner said. "I know the coach is going to bring that intensity. This game is going to make guys want to go hard in practice the next two days and everybody step their game up to the highest potential. So, it can definitely be a good stepping-stone for the next game."
Stony Brook and Vermont last met in the conference opener Jan. 2, and the Seawolves nearly blew a 12-point second-half lead before pulling out a 65-59 win. It's going to be a lot tougher in Burlington, and while they can clinch with a win, a loss will leave them tied, and the Catamounts have an easier finishing schedule. The toughest game would be at Albany (7-6), but the last two are against bottomfeeders on the road at Binghamton (0-11) and home against UMBC (2-10). Stony Brook's final two are at Hartford (5-7) and home against Maine (5-7).
There will be a lot at stake, including a guaranteed NIT berth for the regular-season champion in the event it does not win the conference tournament to get the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.