ALBANY - Stony Brook squandered all but three points of a 16-point second-half lead, but that was just for dramatic effect. When the Seawolves had to have it, sophomore guard Carson Puriefoy III knifed inside for the clinching layup with 10 seconds left in a 69-64 victory over Hartford in an America East Tournament semifinal Sunday night at SEFCU Arena.
The second-seeded Seawolves (23-9) advanced to the conference championship game at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Pritchard Gym against fourth-seeded Albany (17-14), which upset top-seeded Vermont, 67-58, earlier in the day. As the highest remaining seed, Stony Brook gets to host what will be the final game at 1,630-seat Pritchard Gym before the move to 4,008-seat Stony Brook Arena next season.
Two years ago, when SBU hosted a title-game loss to Vermont, it was played in a temporary setup in the larger arena because of a conference seating requirement that since has been waived.
"I'm pleased with getting another chance to go play in Pritchard,'' coach Steve Pikiell said. "It will be nice to bring some March Madness to our campus, and I know our guys love Pritchard.''
Ahead by 15 points with just over seven minutes to play, the Seawolves seemed to have the game well in hand. But their demons from postseasons past surfaced as third-seeded Hartford (16-16) went on a 12-0 run and got within 64-61 on Mark Nwakamma's layup with 3:40 left.
Stony Brook still led by four when Nwakamma got to the rim for two shots. America East player of the year Jameel Warney altered the first attempt and blocked the second with 1:34 left.
"In my opinion, he made the biggest play of the game, stopping Nwakamma twice at the rim,'' Puriefoy said. "We're all glad we have a shot-blocker back there.''
Dave Coley forced his way into the paint with 51 seconds left and hit a tough floater for a 67-61 margin, but Hartford's Corban Wroe banged in a right-wing three-pointer with 44 seconds left to make it 67-64. From there, the Seawolves ran the clock down until Puriefoy put it in the win column.
"Drawing defenders and dishing to them is what I do best,'' Puriefoy said. "Either finish or get my teammates involved.''
Puriefoy had 21 points and four assists. The Seawolves also got 14 points from Anthony Jackson, who made 4 of 6 three-pointers, and 10 points and nine rebounds from Warney. They shot 64 percent in the second half.
Wroe topped Hartford with 21 points, making 7 of 9 from long range, and Nwakamma added 16 points and six rebounds.
Asked if Albany's upset of Vermont gave Stony Brook some extra juice, Jackson said, "Yeah, I think so. This was the same position as last year, playing in the semifinal. The juice was there from day one of preseason.''
The Seawolves built a 28-21 lead, but tired of seeing Puriefoy drive the lane, Hartford coach John Gallagher switched to a 1-3-1 zone, with immediate dividends. Stony Brook committed three straight turnovers and didn't score or even shoot in the paint during the last six minutes of the half.
Pikiell told his team at halftime that had to change.
"Yeah, I said, 'Enough with the jump shots,' '' Pikiell said. "We started getting the ball inside and getting them to foul.''
The Seawolves opened the second half with a 24-10 run that pushed the lead to a high of 57-41 on Puriefoy's layup. At that point, Stony Brook was shooting 78.6 percent in the half (11-for-14).
Having survived the last-second scare from Hartford, the Seawolves now face Albany for the automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
"It's going to be a great game,'' Warney said. "Emotional. It should be a classic.''