Stony Brook looks ready to fulfill the promise of the special season that’s been forecast.
On Saturday night at Island FCU Arena, the Seawolves had their final tuneup before Wednesday night’s America East Conference opener. They had to shake off a haymaker of a first half by a very good Columbia team — and a 17-point deficit — but closed the game with 18 brilliant minutes for a 69-60 win before 3,624.
SBU (9-4), the overwhelming favorite in the America East, is riding a five-game winning streak, and senior Carson Puriefoy III said, “We’re extremely prepared for conference play.”
The first half and even the first two minutes of the second half were virtually all Columbia (9-6). The Lions, who had won five straight games, made nine of their first 15 three-pointers and mostly contained Stony Brook’s primary weapon, two-time America East Player of the Year Jameel Warney.
After Grant Mullins (14 points) made a three-pointer to give Columbia a 42-25 lead with 17:41 to play, SBU coach Steve Pikiell called a timeout. His message: “Stay together because they can’t keep shooting like this.”
As if a switch had been flipped, the rest of the game was all Seawolves. Warney scored 15 of his 20 points, Puriefoy had 14 of his 18 and Stony Brook turned up the defensive pressure to force 13 turnovers that led to 22 points.
Stony Brook put together a 26-3 run that included seven points each from Warney and Puriefoy and five each from Bryan Sekunda and Ahmad Walker (11 points). It included a rim-rocking alley-oop from Puriefoy to Walker and was capped by a jumper by Sekunda that produced a 51-45 lead with 8:45 left.
Asked what it was like to play in the middle of a rush like that, Warney replied, “It’s a priceless experience. It felt like every shot went in for us . . . It was us playing like we always play.”
Stony Brook twice pushed its lead to 12 before the final buzzer. “They got up early and we stayed in the game. I loved our intensity down the stretch and we were able to claw ourselves to a nice win,” Pikiell said.
The nine non-conference wins ties the school record since its move to Division I, but Pikiell and his players see what has transpired as an important foundation for what the Seawolves want to do — reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time after losing in the conference tournament final each of the previous two years.
The Seawolves forced Vanderbilt to overtime and hung tough with Notre Dame in a pair of road losses. They scored road wins over American, Lehigh and NJIT. And “winning conference games on the road is going to be the name of the game,” Pikiell said.
“We have a different type of toughness. We learned a lot over these non-conference games,” Warney said. “We learned how to win on the road . . . It’s a special team.”
That’s what the other America East coaches thought, too, when this twice-denied squad garnered seven of eight first-place votes in the preseason poll. Now it’s time for the Seawolves to show it.