When the atmosphere inside Stony Brook’s arena became so loud, intense and difficult for the visiting team, Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell should have known it was his own darned fault.
He was the one most responsible for making the place and the program what they are.
“I knew this would be tough. I told our guys that,” Pikiell said after watching Stony Brook’s potential tying shot roll around the rim and out with 3.2 seconds left and exhaling with a 71-66 Rutgers victory Saturday night.
No one knows better than Pikiell about the magic that can happen on the court at Island Federal Credit Union Arena. The last time he coached a game on it, he led Stony Brook to a victory that changed his life.
The Seawolves finally won the America East title and finally reached the NCAA Tournament in his 11th year as their coach. Almost instantly after their loss to Kentucky in The Big Dance, he got his big chance to leave for the Big Ten. After building the program at Stony Brook from scratch, he accepted the tough task of rebuilding basketball at Rutgers.
“I never really got a chance to say goodbye, so it was kind of nice to see the community and all the people who were here,” he said Saturday night, minutes after UC Iroegbu’s corner three-point shot rimmed out — in the manner of a golf putt that does a route around the hole — and Mike Williams added two free throws at the end.
It continued a strong start for Rutgers (9-1), which was outplayed for much of the night, went on a 15-0 run late in the second half and withstood a comeback by the home side before a frenzied crowd.
Nigel Johnson had 21 points and six rebounds for Rutgers. Corey Sanders scored 13 points.
There was no ceremony for Pikiell, no video tribute. There was no need for one. The atmosphere and the performance of the players he recruited were tribute enough.
“It was obviously a little bit more emotional than a regular game,” said Roland Nyama, a junior whom Pikiell brought to Long Island from Frankfurt, Germany. Nyama set the tone with a three-pointer on the game’s first possession and finished with 17 points.
“It’s odd hearing the play calls that we ran last year,’’ Nyama said, “but I was excited to play against him because I was kind of curious to see how they would prepare for me and what they would do to stop us.”
Akwasi Yeboah, who led Stony Brook (3-6) with 18 points, said, “It was different seeing him on the other side but I’m still in a great situation and I enjoy playing for my team and my new coach.”
Jeff Boals, who replaced Pikiell, was disappointed but likes the “projection” his team is showing. He tipped his cap to the man on the other bench: “He definitely built the program. His first few years were obviously rough, but he stayed the course.”
There always will be a little Pikiell in Stony Brook’s heart, and vice versa. The winning coach said of his former home, “If this continues to be good, it will be very exciting to me.”