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Stony Brook beats Vermont, headed for Big Dance

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Stony Brook men's basketball players Carson Puriefoy and Jameel Warney, alongside head coach Steve Pikiell, speak to media about their come-from-behind win in the 2016 America East Conference final, earning them a bid to NCAA Tournament. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

The template for Stony Brook’s past letdowns in four losing America East title games was in place. There was the 15-point deficit with barely 15 minutes remaining. Only Jameel Warney was scoring for the Seawolves, and everybody up and down Vermont’s roster was finding the basket, scoring on six straight possessions to create a sense of impending doom at sold-out Island FCU Arena.

But seniors Warney and Carson Puriefoy III and their teammates found the will to say, “Not again.” They put together a comeback that was the stuff of legends to exorcise the school’s demons and score an 80-74 victory that gave Stony Brook its first NCAA Tournament berth.

Three-time conference player of the year Warney scored a career-high 43 points to tie the championship game scoring record set by Vermont’s Taylor Coppenrath in 2004. He shot 18-for-22 and added 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. Puriefoy totaled 23 points, including 5-for-12 accuracy from three-point range. Despite being outscored 27-0 by the Vermont bench, the Seawolves (26-6) countered with 53 second-half points.

Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell had to pick the program up after it got knocked down at this stage four times in the previous five seasons, never worse than last season’s 51-50 loss at Albany on a three-pointer by Peter Hooley with 1.6 seconds left.

A beatific smile emerged as he thought back on the second-half display, and Pikiell said, “They played today. They just played. In the second half, they just played, and it was fun to watch.”

In fact, it was unforgettable. Vermont (21-13) took a 48-33 lead on a layup by Hofstra transfer Darren Payen with 15:17 remaining. But Warney scored on three unanswered layups, Puriefoy made his next three shots from three-point range, the defense turned the Catamounts over five times, and suddenly Stony Brook had put together a 29-13 run for a 62-61 lead on a free throw by Warney with 5:59 to play.

“You have to be aggressive the whole game,” Warney said. “You can’t be content with losing the final. Just come out swinging. We went down in the second half by a lot, and we knew we had to stay together. We’re a group of tough guys. You have to really beat us.”

Vermont regained a 68-64 lead, but even though the Catamounts spent a week devising ways to stop Warney, as Pikiell noted, Lucas Woodhouse (eight assists) and Ahmad Walker found him open underneath for layups that tied the score at 68 and began Stony Brook’s 16-6 finishing kick.

“Before the game, Coach said I had to get 20 shots up,” Warney said.” I didn’t know if I could do that, but I did it today. I just had to be aggressive, play to my strengths, and I thank my teammates for giving me the ball.”

The Seawolves were nursing a one-point lead when Woodhouse missed a three from the right corner, but Warney went up with Vermont’s Kurt Steidl pinning his left arm and steered the ball into the basket with his right hand for a 75-72 lead. Moments later, he followed a missed layup by Walker with another putback for a 79-74 lead with 20 seconds to go, prompting pandemonium.

“A missed shot was like another pass to me,” Warney said. “I think I’m one of the best offensive rebounding guys in the country . . . It was just energy plays, who wanted it more, toughness. I didn’t want to lose, didn’t want to quit.”

Pikiell just shook his head and smiled when asked when he’d ever seen a game like the one Warney delivered. “When he made the shot when the [defender] had one arm tied behind his back, I said, ‘Oh, boy,’ ” Pikiell said. “He’s been like that all year long. I think he wanted to cement his legacy. He’s by far the best player we’ve ever had in school history. He’s the best kid, too.”

A year ago at Albany, Warney and Puriefoy combined for 43 of Stony Brook’s 50 points, but both missed critical foul shots in the final two minutes. This time, Puriefoy made five straight before missing the last with 11.5 seconds left and the game beyond reach. Vermont then missed two shots, and Stony Brook’s recurring nightmare was over.

Finally, the Seawolves were cutting down nets. “It’s an incredible feeling,” Puriefoy said. “Me and Jameel were talking before the game. ‘This is our last chance. We’ve got to lead these guys.’ I think we did a good job of it today.”

Pikiell said it never has been about him, but after building an exemplary program that was missing one ingredient and enduring the criticism that came with falling short of the NCAA Tournament, he finally got his crowning moment.

Speaking of his family, Pikiell said, “They get to share a little excitement, too. Usually after this game, there’s not too much excitement when I head back to the house. Tonight will be a little bit different.”

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