The numbers piled up at a record rate for Stony Brook’s basketball team this season: an 18-game winning streak, an RPI that climbed as high as 50th in the country and a 14-2 America East record that resulted in a No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the conference tournament that begins with a quarterfinal game against eighth-seeded UMBC Wednesday night at Island FCU Arena.
But now, it’s one-and-done as the Seawolves (23-6) try to do something they’ve never done: Win three straight conference tournament games to earn the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid. That starts against the dangerous Retrievers, whose talent is far better than the sum of their 7-24 record.
“If you overlook one game, your season is over,” Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell said. “We’re just focused on UMBC. They have the [highest-scoring] player in the league, and no one has been able to stop him.”
Pikiell was referring to sophomore guard Jairus Lyles, a transfer from Virginia Commonwealth who averaged 23.0 points after becoming eligible for the final 20 games. He is surrounded by double-figures scorers Rodney Elliott (13.1), who was AE rookie of the year in 2014, Will Darley (11.2) and Joe Sherburne (10.5), all of whom are listed as guards, though Darley is 6-8 and Sherburne is 6-6.
Pikiell said Seawolves guard Carson Puriefoy III will be on the 6-2 Lyles, but wing man Ahmad Walker, who was named to the America East all-defensive team, also is likely to match up against Lyles at times.
“Different looks are important,” Pikiell said. “[Lyles] is a high-level guard, but you have to take care of the other guys because they have outliers that are really good.”
No doubt, UMBC will focus its defensive efforts on denying the ball to Stony Brook center Jameel Warney, who just won his third America East player of the year award. Warney is second in the conference to Lyles with an 18.7 scoring average, but he’s worked hard for his touches against a variety of sagging defenses that put two or three defenders around him.
“Definitely, other guys have to step up, but he has to figure out ways to get his touches, too,” Pikiell said of Warney. “If they’ve got two guys fronting you, you have great inside position to rebound. But it’s a team thing. You need everyone to play well at this time of year.”
Because Stony Brook lost two of its last three games by double-digit margins at Albany and at home to Vermont, it raised the ghosts of past March heartbreak. “Losses are good for you, too,” Pikiell said. “It gets your team focused . . . I want to be the [No. 1] seed, playing here in my gym. You sleep in your own bed, play on your own rims and hope your crowd helps you a little bit, too.”