Now that Stony Brook has become the toast of the nation, trending No. 1 on Twitter, appearing in-studio on national TV and generally becoming the top college basketball story in the country over the weekend, it was only fitting that it be matched up against someone its own size, reputation-wise. Seawolves, meet the Kentucky Wildcats.
That is how Stony Brook will make its NCAA Tournament debut after a heartstrings-tugging victory at home Saturday. The team that finally made The Big Dance on its fifth try in the conference tournament final will face the most experienced, accomplished March dancers of all time, fourth-seeded Kentucky. The game will be Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa.
For the 13th-seeded Seawolves, the chance to scale such a tall mountain only added to the walking-on-air quality of the weekend in which they finally made it to the NCAA Tournament.
“Just playing against a Kentucky team, it was just a dream as a kid. Being able to compete against them, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for guys like us,” Stony Brook senior forward Rayshaun McGrew said at a rousing party at Island FCU Arena, where the players watched the tournament selection show with the coaches, school officials, band, cheerleaders, dance team, mascot and about 500 fans.
A roar went up as the announcement was made, despite the fact that some of the players had learned about the matchup on their smartphones because the brackets were leaked on the Internet. “That’s the problem with social media. You can see everything now,” Jameel Warney said with a smile that indicated he did not see it as a problem at all.
Warney still wore the net that he and his teammates cut down after he scored 43 points in a riveting 80-74 victory over Vermont on Saturday, a game in which the Seawolves overcame a 15-point second-half deficit and the hex that seemed to engulf them. Their story hit home everywhere, making the players instant celebrities. On Sunday, the whole team was on set for a national CBS pregame show.
“And I finally heard from Mark Morrison,” Warney said, referring to his favorite R &B/rap star.
Carson Puriefoy III, who scored 23 points Saturday, had dreamed of this kind of buzz for four years. On Sunday, he said, “It’s even better than that, honestly. I could never have described to you how I feel right now before it happened. Now that it has, it’s still kind of indescribable.”
McGrew added, “It feels like a dream. At this moment, talking to you, I still feel like my eyes are closed and I’m in a nice deep sleep. But as things are going on, I feel like all the hard work I ever did and all the things my mom wanted me to do are all paying off.”
He missed the first game of the season so he could be in Chicago to be with his mother, Ineater, who died several weeks later. McGrew believes she will be looking down proudly on Thursday. “I hope she gives me a little extra strength so we can come up with a good win,” he said.
A win would be epic, if not unimaginable. But the Seawolves are relishing the game against Kentucky and Hall of Fame coach John Calipari. “Just to play in this tournament is a complete honor,’’ Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell said. “And to get to play a storied program like Kentucky is really special.”
He laughed when someone brought up Texas Western’s 1966 upset over Kentucky. “I wasn’t born then,” he said, but added that he doesn’t view it as a “Hoosiers”-style mismatch. “This is a great university,’’ he said. “People are going to get to know that. This isn’t a small school with a brook running through it, which people think.”
He recalled having played Kentucky before, a competitive 62-52 defeat in Lexington on Nov. 27, 2007. None of this year’s players ever will forget how the Seawolves got a chance to do it again.
The scoreboard was lit up Sunday the way it had been at the end of the game Saturday, with the score 80-74 and the “43” in Warney’s points column. Warney joked that the school might not take that down until next season, then summed up his teammates’ feelings: “I always dreamed about playing a team like Kentucky, and now I’ve achieved my dream . . . We’re going to play to the best of our abilities. We’re going to try to win.”
The Skinny on Kentucky
Coach: John Calipari
NCAA Tournament appearances: 55
NCAA Tournament titles: 8
Leading scorer: Jamal Murray (20.1 ppg)
Points per game: 79.7
Points allowed per game: 68.3