The first time I saw Stony Brook play this season, I was suitably impressed by the known quantities, leading scorers Muhammad El-Amin and Bryan Dougher. But the player who was impossible to ignore was 6-5 forward Tommy Brenton. He can score when needed, but it's his rebounding, defense, passing and all-around hard-nosed play that provides the glue that holds the Seawolves together.
Apparently, I have lots of company in the Brenton fan club, starting with Albany coach Will Brown. Brenton had 13 points, 16 rebounds (including 7 offensive boards), 3 assists, 1 blocked shot and 1 steal in Stony Brook's 68-59 victory over eighth-seeded Albany in the first round of the America East tournament today. He and forward Dallis Joyner, a 6-7, 250-pound bruiser, patrolled the paint mercilessly against the Great Danes. Joyner had seven rebounds and a block to go with his nine points.
There was one play as Albany tried to mount a late-game comeback, where Brenton planted himself firmly in the paint and just waited for the Danes' Mike Black to drive to the basket. Black went up….and came down hard, bouncing off Brenton, landing on his tailbone and writhing in pain for a couple minutes while play was halted.
Albany's Brown paid Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell his highest compliment by praising how hard he gets the Seawolves to play, but Brown saved his best lines for Brenton. "He's the America East's Bill Laimbeer," Brown said, comparing Brenton to the former Detroit Pistons guardian of the paint. "Nobody likes playing against him, but every coach would welcome him through their office door with open arms. He's annoying to play against, he's a pain in the butt, but boy, is he good with what he does. Nobody plays harder than him, nobody outworks him, nobody plays more physical than him."
"El-Amin is terrific, a well-deserving (America East) player of the year. Dougher can shoot with anybody in the league and maybe the country. But you take Tommy Brenton off that floor, and every coach takes a deep breath and sleeps well at night. I thought if we could get Brenton in foul trouble, we'd be okay. We didn't do it. He's the engine in my mind. I saw him three times this year, and I'm glad I don't have to see him a fourth."
No doubt, Albany's Will Harris has similar feelings. After scoring 12 of the Danes' first 20 points, Harris got only three the rest of the way and often was frustrated when he drove inside and ran into either Brenton or Joyner, who altered his shots. On one play in the second half, Harris remained sitting on the floor with his arms outstretched in a plea to the referee for a call.
Asked about the Seawolves' physical play in the paint, Harris offered a sardonic look and said, "Ummm, they're tough down there, very physical. You've got to go strong to the basket and hope for a whistle. I was doing a lot of hoping today."
Brenton obviously enjoys the rough stuff on the inside and makes himself right at home despite being undersized compared to many of the forwards he faces. After Albany got off to an early 18-12 lead, he reminded the Seawolves where their bread is buttered.
"We try to focus on defense in practice and every game," Brenton said. "That's our key point. If we want to win games, we've got to play defense. We kind of huddled up on the court and said, if we want to advance, we have to play defense. We picked up our play and went from there."
Brenton and Joyner figure to play a vital role in the Seawolves' semifinal game against Boston University (18-12) Sunday night at. If No. 1 seeded Stony Brook wins, it earns the right to host the conference championship game and play for the automatic NCAA tourney berth in a nationally televised game on ESPN at noon next Saturday. But the Terriers were the preseason favorite in America East and suddenly are playing like it with victories in seven of their past eight games, including an 87-46 first-round demolition of Hartford (8-22), the host team for the tournament.
The Terriers have five players who average in double figures scoring led by John Holland's 19.9 average. He only had 12 against Hartford, but Jake O'Brien poured in 28 points and Corey Lowe drilled 26.
Stony Brook swept two from BU this season, but the Terriers are at the top of their game now. "They're a dangerous basketball team," Stony Brook's Pikiell said. "They have five guys who can really score; they shoot well from three-point land, and they get to the foul line. We really have to defend and use our depth because they really rely on about five players."