Now, it’s about holding serve for Stony Brook, defending the home hardwood. A rough stretch of 11 road games in the past 15 contests ended with a 60-55 upset loss Sunday afternoon at Hartford, a result that dropped the Seawolves into second place in the America East half a game behind Vermont.
Stony Brook leads the nation in true road wins with 10, but this was the one that got away thanks to 10-of-23 three-point shooting by the Hawks, who won for the first time in the past 10 tries against SBU. This was the kind of game the Seawolves (17-6, 8-2 America East) usually win with defense and toughness down the stretch, but Hartford had five players who could make threes.
Rather than fault his team’s perimeter defense, coach Steve Pikiell chose the opposite route -- a pat on the back for the effort and a decision to emphasize the immediate future, a key three-game homestand that begins Tuesday night with a game against Binghamton before the big one on Friday night against Vermont, which leads America East with a 9-2 record and has a leg up on the Seawolves by virtue of a decisive 81-73 victory in their first meeting this season in Burlington.
“I love my team,” Pikiell said. “We’re good. I’m excited about us moving forward…We’re 17-6 and 8-2. Don’t feel sorry for us. We’ll be back in the gym. Stony Brook basketball is in good shape. You saw our center. He had a career-high tonight, 21 and 9.”
That’s points and rebounds by freshman Jameel Warney (pictured), who continues to grow as a force in the America East. What Warney couldn’t do at Hartford was get out to the perimeter in time to get a hand in the face of Hawks forward Nate Sikma, whose three-pointer at the 2:14 mark for a 56-51 Hartford lead was the dagger to Stony Brook’s heart.
“It’s a tough matchup,” Pikiell said of that play. “He’s a perimeter-post guy, and Jameel is a low-post guy. We’ve played Sikma a lot of times, and he’s missed a bunch of those. But he made it, he got a good look at it, he was feeling good. To have Jameel run around the perimeter is not his strength, and Hartford took advantage of that tonight.”
Warney, too, chose to focus on the task ahead rather than worry about losing a nine-point second-half lead at Hartford to slip out of first place ever so slightly. “It’s tough, but it happened,” Warney said. “We have to focus on Binghamton on Tuesday and win three straight games at home.”
The Seawolves certainly can’t afford to overlook Binghamton, but the big one is the Vermont game before the homestand ends with a game against UMBC. A loss would position the Catamounts (16-7, 9-2) for the regular-season conference title and the right to host the conference championship game even if they tied Stony Brook because they would have the tiebreaker. The Seawolves lost the title game at home to Vermont last year, but still, it would be far better to compete for the automatic NCAA bid at home than in Burlington.
So, Pikiell shrugged off the Hartford loss, saying, “In this league you have to win every game.” Of course, he was thinking in terms of tournament time when that’s the only way to think.