Jameel Warney again asserted himself as the big man on the block Sunday as the Stony Brook basketball team edged visiting New Hampshire, 59-58, to earn its 18th straight victory and clinch at least a tie for the America East Conference regular-season title.
Stony Brook led by one with seven seconds left, but New Hampshire had the ball coming out of a timeout. It seemed logical that the Wildcats would go to Tanner Leissner for a potential game-winning attempt; he had 26 points and had attempted 25 shots. As it turned out, though, Leissner played no role in the final play.
The ball went to guard Jaleen Smith (3-for-9 to that point), who was tightly guarded by Kameron Mitchell at the top of the key. Smith used a crossover dribble to get past Mitchell and drove toward the basket, where the 6-8, 260-pound Warney was planted. With time about to expire, the 6-4 Smith tried to shoot over Warney, who stuffed the shot with his right hand for his eighth block of the game.
“I just saw him drive to the basket,’’ Warney said. “I’m lucky to have blocked the shot. I’m happy we got away with a win. At that time I wasn’t thinking about just fouling. Just thinking about just playing the ball. If the ref called a foul, just have to prepare for that. He didn’t call a foul, so I’m happy.’’
The replay showed Warney cleanly blocking the ball, with his hand never touching Smith. Asked if he thought Warney’s block was clean, New Hampshire associate coach Ken Dempsey said, “Yeah.’’
Stony Brook (22-4, 13-0), which owns the longest current winning streak in Division I men’s basketball, leads second-place Albany by three games with three to play. The Seawolves can capture the conference regular-season title by beating defending conference champion Albany on the road Wednesday night. The regular-season champion earns homecourt advantage throughout the conference tournament.
New Hampshire (15-10, 8-4), lately the surprise team of the conference, was crushed. “To get them down there on the ropes at the end and have a shot to win the game was something we were hoping would happen,’’ said Dempsey, who filled in for Bill Herrion after the death of Herrion’s mother on Saturday. “Our guys mounted the challenge. We just didn’t get a great look at the end, but Warney made a great play. He’s a great player.’’
Dempsey said there was not enough time to involve Leissner in the final shot. “To get the ball to Tanner Leissner with seven seconds to go is really hard, so we thought having Jaleen come off a ball screen, he might be able to create something and get to the bucket,’’ he said. “They stepped up and made a great play.’’
Stony Brook thought either Leissner or Smith would take the last shot. “I personally thought they would go to the hot hand, which is Leissner,’’ said Rayshaun McGrew, who helped hold Leissner to 0-for-9 shooting from the field in Stony Brook’s 80-50 victory on Jan. 16. “We watched a lot of film. We knew that Smith was a good one-on-one player so we knew it was either going to go to Leissner or be an isolation for Smith.
“They kind of did what we thought they were going to do. Jameel made an amazing block on the play. Kam played great defense on Smith, which gave Jameel great position to get the ball.’’
Stony Brook’s defense had to win the game because the Seawolves were offensively challenged for a change. Warney and Carson Puriefoy had 16 points each and McGrew added 14, but the Seawolves shot 39.7 percent from the field overall (23-for-58). Warney needs eight points to break Emeka Smith’s school record of 1,978.
New Hampshire’s 2-3 zone seemed to bother Stony Brook, which made only 4 of 17 three-point attempts, but coach Steve Pikiell said, “We’ve been seeing zones all year long. If we made shots, you would have said, ‘Boy, we carved up the zone.’ We got good looks. I like the looks we got.’’
Stony Brook built six nine-point leads in the second half, the last with 5:41 left on a three-point play by Puriefoy. That made it 57-48, but Leissner and Ronnel Jordan sank three-pointers and Iba Camara hit a layup with 3:52 left to bring New Hampshire within one.
A rare side jumper by Warney with 3:27 to play made it 59-56, but Leissner’s two free throws with 2:43 left brought New Hampshire within 59-58.
“It wasn’t like our best basketball game, but we found a way to win against a team that was playing as good as anybody in the league,’’ Pikiell said.
And then Pikiell uttered a familiar refrain that in this instance was right on point. “Win by one is our philosophy, then get on the bus,’’ he said.
Next stop: Albany.