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Stony Brook falls to Kentucky in first round of NCAA Tournament

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Fans and alumni watch Stony Brook's first-round loss to Kentucky Thursday night, March 17, 2016. A watch party at the Holiday Inn Express near Stony Brook was one of many places where fans went to cheer for their team. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

DES MOINES, Iowa — After many struggles and a wait that seemed like forever, Stony Brook finally had its own One Shining Moment. Its debut in the NCAA Tournament was not perfect, but it did fulfill the Seawolves’ greatest hope. They had their chance to dance.

The Seawolves played their hearts out Thursday night, especially in the early going of their first-round game against Kentucky. Their problem was that they just did not shoot the lights out in what became an 85-57 loss.

So they had strong and mixed emotions as they said hello and goodbye to their dream. They were delighted to make it to The Big Dance for the first time in school history, but their energy and effort showed that they were not just happy to be here. They left wishing they had made more than 18.9 percent of their shots in the first half and made more of a game out of it.

“We were all thankful to be here. Obviously, we didn’t have a great showing in this game, but you can’t take away from the season,” said Jameel Warney, who left the court as a Stony Brook player with senior classmates Carson Puriefoy and Rayshaun McGrew for the final time with 1:30 left to a standing ovation from fans who came from Long Island. “This is going to hurt for probably a few days, but at the end of the day, you can reflect and show how far we came this season.”

Warney was surrounded by big, mobile defenders every time he touched the ball. He finished with 23 points — although many of those came after Kentucky had pulled away in the second half — and 15 rebounds.

Puriefoy, the only other Stony Brook player to reach double figures with 10 points, said, “We wanted to come out here and have a better showing, but we ran into a really good team and they played extremely well and we didn’t play that well. So that’s what happened. But I’m still really thankful to be here and wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

For nearly a quarter of the game, Stony Brook (26-7) played the overwhelming favorite even at 10-10. Kentucky led by only 20-13 with 5 1⁄2 minutes left in the first half. The Seawolves excelled on defense and on the boards, so they will always wonder what might have been if they had just shot a little more like they usually do. Then again, they did dance on the summit years of heartbreak. They never will forget that.

Kentucky (27-8) showed why it is among college basketball’s first families — with an NCAA Tournament-record 120 wins — and a perennial title contender. The Wildcats shot 22-for-29 in the second half and challenged every Stony Brook player who ventured inside, setting an NCAA Tournament record with 15 blocked shots. Said Warney, “They were being Kentucky.”

Jamal Murray scored 19 points for the Wildcats, who went ahead 53-25 by outscoring the Seawolves 20-6 in the first 5:38 of the second half and led by as many as 33 points. Isaiah Briscoe added 13 points and 11 rebounds, Alex Poythress and Skal Labissiere scored 12 points each and Tyler Ulis had 10 points and seven assists for Kentucky. Labissiere also blocked six shots.

Warney shot 10-for-21, but his teammates shot 10-for-55.

Part of the excitement for Stony Brook was the fact that it was playing against royalty. Just reaching the NCAA Tournament — arguably America’s second-favorite sporting event, after the Super Bowl — is the top of the mountain for most mid-major teams such as Stony Brook. They don’t get to dream about winning the championship and being immortalized in the annual “One Shining Moment” video. But there was nothing “mid” about this experience for the Seawolves.

Here they were Thursday night, with many players who began their college careers in tiny Pritchard Gymnasium, on the court in a four-deck arena. Their band and dance team were in front of network cameras. So was Wolfie the mascot. It was all a long, long way from the time when coach Steve Pikiell first took the job and could name most of the people in the small home crowds.

Pikiell never gave up hope, even when the team lost in the conference final four times in five years. He infused the same hope in his players right up through Thursday night. When they look back at their moment, they probably will not be sad at all.

Sitting next to Warney and Puriefoy, Pikiell said, “These guys took our school to a place we’ve never been. I’m real proud of them. They got this thing started.”

“It is a dream come true, still, to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Lucas Woodhouse said. “You always want to play here and get to this stage. And we lived it today. It was an awesome experience.”

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