The difference between this season’s Stony Brook Seawolves and the team that won three of the previous four America East titles but fell short of an NCAA bid is that this edition has a much-improved, more consistent offense.
As coach Steve Pikiell said after the Seawolves’ 67-64 win over Vermont in a battle for first place in the conference, “We think we can score this year. You saw in the first half that we can.”
Indeed, the Seawolves (14-6, 6-0 conference) shot 54.5 percent from the field in the opening half and ran up a lead as high as 17 points over the Catamounts (11-9, 5-1), whose seven-game winning streak came to an end. Eight of the nine Seawolves who played scored, including Jameel Warney with 18, Anthony Jackson (16) and Carson Puriefoy III (11), and Eric McAlister added eight points to go with his team-high 10 rebounds.
Freshman wing man Ahmad Walker makes an impact when he finishes around the rim, and he is showing he can fill a scoresheet, as he did against Vermont with six points, nine rebounds and three assists.
But Stony Brook found out against Vermont that it’s still not immune to the kind of scoring droughts that have undermined its efforts at conference tournament time to win the automatic NCAA bid. The Seawolves went 6:27 between baskets over one span of the second half and scored their last basket with 2:39 to play, going scoreless on the final five possessions.
When someone asked Pikiell about shot selection during the drought, including four straight missed threes, he said, “We played our pace in the first half, and we didn’t in the second half. We didn’t get second shots…They did a great job on the boards in the second half. They flipped the switch on us.”
Yet, Pikiell’s team survived because it still can play killer defense when necessary. The Catamounts were scoreless on their final five possessions, too, shooting 0-for-6 down the stretch, the last three from beyond the arc. Warney blocked shots on back-to-back possessions.
With a smile, Pikiell said, “Jameel gave us emergency defense at the rim…That’s a good team. Put the Duke tape on [a 91-90 Vermont loss in Cameron Indoor Fieldhouse]. We knew they’d make a run.
“We did a great job on their starters, but you see the depth they have. They were bringing big guys off the bench.”
Vermont’s five senior starters scored a total of 18 points on 6-of-27 shooting, but the bench totaled 46 points. Harold Hector hit three of six from three-point range on his way to 17 points, and Kurt Steidl had 13 on 4-of-6 shooting from three.
But when the Catamounts had to have a three-pointer while inbounding from near midcourt with two seconds left, Pikiell’s defense made sure it was Ethan O’Day, whose 16 points came in the paint, who took the shot from 35 feet. It missed.
“We wanted to make it a tough look,” Pikiell said, “and we had the right guy taking the shot.”
It’s called coaching.