It was halftime at Vermont, and it seemed Stony Brook -- down by 12 points after having trailed by 16 in an America East Tournament semifinal -- might be headed to a sixth straight blowout loss at Patrick Gym. Junior guard Carson Puriefoy III and freshman guard Deshaun Thrower were struggling offensively with two points apiece.
"As a team, we didn't want the season to end," Puriefoy said. "We had a talk amongst the players at halftime and said we needed to turn up our defense and that would help our offense . . . I just didn't want to be disappointed in March again, so I took it on myself to help the team any way I could."
In the second half, Thrower scored 16 of his career-high 18 points and Puriefoy had 15 of his 17 to provide the support that conference player of the year Jameel Warney (24 points, 11 rebounds) needed in a 79-77 win that put the Seawolves (23-10) in the America East championship game at 11 Saturday morning at Albany (23-8).
Puriefoy said he expected a breakout game from Thrower at some point, and it couldn't have come at a better time or place than Vermont. "We really needed him, and he stepped up big-time,'' he said. "He took in all the pressure and responded very well . . . After the game, I told him, 'One more and we're dancing.' "
This is the fourth time in five seasons that Stony Brook has reached the championship game, but it has yet to take that last step to earn the school's first NCAA Tournament bid. Albany, on the other hand, has been to the title game four times and won every time, including last season on the Seawolves' floor.
In fact, the Great Danes ended Stony Brook's NCAA dreams two years in a row, and Puriefoy bears the scars. Two years ago in the conference semifinals at Albany, he leaned the wrong way when former Albany guard Mike Black drove past for the winning basket. Last year, he bumped with Great Danes guard Peter Hooley and fell as Hooley hit a three-pointer with a minute left for a five-point lead that became a 69-60 win.
"You keep them in the back of your mind," Puriefoy said of those plays. "When the game starts, you focus on the now. But I'm well aware of what's happened the past couple of years. I'm going to use it as motivation for this game."
Puriefoy earned first-team all-conference honors this season, averaging 14.0 points and 3.4 assists per game. But he has struggled at times because opponents clog the middle around Warney but are quick to help when Puriefoy uses his speed to get to the basket. He has to hit his jumper to open space in the paint.
The experience of being the focal point of so much defensive attention this season has made Puriefoy tougher mentally, and it showed in the second half at Vermont. The Seawolves gave the Great Danes their only America East loss -- and did it at Albany's SEFCU Arena a month ago, three games into their current eight-game winning streak -- but it will take all of their toughness to repeat that feat with the NCAA on the line.
"They're a very physical team," Puriefoy said. "We're No. 1 in rebounding and they're No. 2, so it's going to be a battle of mental and physical toughness. We know it's going to be a grind to the end. That's what's fun about basketball in March and championship games. Both teams are headed toward one goal, and the tougher team is going to prevail."
Puriefoy is one of only four Seawolves who played in the title game last season, along with Warney, Rayshaun McGrew and Kameron Mitchell. But he's confident that freshmen Thrower, Roland Nyama and Tyrell Sturdivant are capable of handling the pressure at the end of a season in which Stony Brook has played its toughest-ever schedule.
"I don't think of them as freshmen anymore because they've logged so many minutes and played in so many close games on the road," Puriefoy said. "Down 16 at Washington, down 16 at Vermont.
"You've got to be mentally ready for the rigors of this game. Me and Jameel and Ray have stressed to the younger players that anything can happen in that atmosphere. They're definitely ready for the challenge."