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Strong second half is not enough as Seawolves fall short in tournament again

Stony Brook guard Elijah Olaniyi shoots past Hartford

Stony Brook guard Elijah Olaniyi shoots past Hartford guard Traci Carter in the second half of an America East men's basketball semifinal at Island Federal Arena on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Makale Foreman crouched in the middle of the court, 17 seconds still left on the clock. Miles Latimer tried to coax him up. There was still more to play, though this game and this season, was all but over.

So ends Stony Brook men’s basketball’s bid in the America East Tournament: A rousing 14-point comeback in the semifinal, the briefest of leads with six minutes to go, and then the slow, dispiriting descent into a very familiar story.

No. 2 Stony Brook fell to third-seeded Hartford, 64-58, Tuesday night at Island Federal Credit Arena, and though the cast of characters changed, the script was an old one.

Again, the Seawolves came into the tournament as one of the favorites, and again they came up short of claiming their prize. Last year, again seeded second, it was No. 7 Binghamton that stunned them. Two years before that, still, again, No. 2, they were bested by third-seeded Albany. And so on and so forth, until a bittersweet legacy comes into focus: A very good team that has made the semifinals 10 times in the last 11 seasons, but has only won a title once, in 2016.

“That’s literally all I think about 24 hours a day,” coach Geno Ford said. “But I don’t want our guys to feel like it wasn’t a successful year at all, because it in many ways it was … I wanted to get to the championship game with a young team because I thought it would really give us a shot in the arm for next year. We’re going to have to use the sting of a disappointing home loss to do that.”

And it’s true that Stony Brook had its hurdles: The team has no seniors and its star, Elijah Olaniyi, missed five games with an ankle injury. He came back a week early, against Albany, and his ankle swelled up painfully the day after, Ford said. He still played on Tuesday. “I think he was a shadow of himself and I think he would admit it in a week,” Ford said. “He sucked it up and played … It should be celebrated … because you can’t be a bigger winner than going out and playing and doing your best when you’re maybe not 100 percent.”

Olaniyi led all scorers with 19 points, but the Seawolves shot only 3-for-17 from the perimeter, compared to the Hawks’ 12-for-22. Hunter Marks (17 points) made five of his six three-point attempts for Hartford.

Looking to be all but eliminated, the Seawolves came barreling back in the second half, behind a 11-0 run that started with Mouhamadou Gueye’s three-point play six minutes into the frame, was carried along by six straight points from Olaniyi, including a trey from the top of the key that marked Stony Brook’s first made three of the game. When the frantic comeback finally settled, the Seawolves found themselves looking up at a much more manageable 41-39 advantage with 11:31 to play.

The two traded blows until the Seawolves finally tied it on three straight points from Gueye, whose layup knotted the score at 47, and Olaniyi gave them their first lead since the opening minutes of the first half, with a three with 6:06 left to make it 50-47.

But the Hawks rediscovered their stride, and Marks’ three eventually gave them a two-point lead. A costly blocking foul on Olaniyi helped Hartford tack on, and they ended the game on a 17-8 run to seal it.

“We’ve always been close [to a championship] throughout the whole year,” Gueye said. “We’ve always been just this close to winning something, everything. And we know that we can do it.”

It was impressive that Stony Brook even got that close, considering a genuinely woeful first half.

Hartford led by as many as 14, 31-17, and went into the break with the 31-19 advantage.

“I’m sure everyone in the locker room feels the hurt,” Gueye said.

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