]Illinois put itself into the second round of the NIT, which is what they came here to do. No shock there. The big stride was made all by the other side, though, as Stony Brook put itself on the map.
The Seawolves put on such a show in front of a raucous crowd of 4,423 at Stony Brook Arena that they had the Big Ten team's coach calling a timeout with 1:37 left, and had the many red-wearing people in the building thinking that a miracle might not be out of the question. Ultimately, Illinois did hang on for a 76-66 win, but it was the home side that had the better night.
It took a three-pointer and two late free throws by Mike Tisdale, the 7-1 Illinois center, to break open a differential that was only six points wide with little more than 90 seconds left. Stony Brook played about as well as it could and better than expected.
Bryan Dougher scored 21 points and Illinois held Muhammad El-Amin to 16 points and 6-for-20 shooting in what was arguably the biggest basketball game in Suffolk County history and the biggest sporting event ever on the Stony Brook campus.
Someday, the program might see this game as the one in which Stony Brook basketball, in Division I for only 10 years and in the postseason for only one night, made a name for itself.
"When we come to play, we can pretty much compete with any team in the country," said Dougher, who was described by Illinois coach Bruce Weber as the best three-point shooter his team faced all season.
Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell said, "I do think better days are ahead. We are going to really miss Mo [El-Amin], but we've got a lot of young guys back and hopefully they got a taste of what it could be like. We had chances in this game."
Stony Brook had the ball down six, coming out of timeouts with 3:05 and 2:22 left, but missed outside shots. If not for that, who knows? Illinois won with outside shooting and balanced scoring, Mike Davis had 17 points, D.J. Richardson and Demetri McCamey each had 16 and Tisdale 15. Still, it had to overcome Stony Brook's immediate, intense 7-0 lead.
The scene was unique to the point of being surreal: The huge TV trucks outside the arena, the banks of intensely bright lights, the standing ovation for Seawolves players when they ran out for the last round of warm-ups, the band playing the fight song of the nominal visiting team, wearing red. "It was crazy. A packed gym, it was kind of like playing in high school," McCamey said. "It was great."
That Illinois had found its way to Republic Airport, to and from Danford's Inn in Port Jefferson, to the arena was testimony to the goal Pikiell had set. "He wants to put this program on the map," El-Amin said. "I said, 'I think I can help you do it.' "
Pikiell's work reminded an impressed Weber of when he started coaching at Southern Illinois and had 1,000 fans at his first game. By his last game there were 10,000.
"It can happen," said the Illinois coach, who worked the NCAA championship game five years ago. "With these guys next year, maybe they get in the NCAA Tournament. They know they can play with people. The next time, they might be able to get the victory. I'm just glad it's not us."