Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell never had any reservations about tossing his young team into deep water right away. He figured they were bound to learn how to deal with just about anything if they played a tough schedule. What they showed Tuesday night is that, by the way, they already have learned how to win.
The Seawolves overcame a horrible start, a daunting press, a second-half deficit and a proven program -- the eighth best winning percentage in NCAA basketball history -- and beat Western Kentucky, 71-61, at Island Federal Credit Union Arena.
"We knew we had a tough schedule coming in, and the coaching staff has always preached toughness and togetherness. I think that's what we did," said Carson Puriefoy, who scored 15 of his 21 points in the second half, when the visiting Hilltoppers came back from a 10-point hole and took a 57-56 lead with 4:41 left.
Puriefoy, the junior point guard, put Stony Brook ahead to stay with a steal and another in a series of one-man fast breaks to make it 59-57 with 3:46 remaining. "It means a lot. These are the types of game you wish to play in when you're a little kid: close, coming down the stretch, making plays for your team in front of your home fans. It's just a great feeling," he said.
Jameel Warney, the junior big man who had 17 points and 15 rebounds, added, "It's a great feeling. They're a really good team. They came out of the gates, winning 11-1 and that made us bond together even more and face adversity. It's good for us, the veterans and younger guys to see what we're made of and show our true colors."
In this NIT Season Tip-Off game, those two upperclassmen outlasted Western Kentucky stars George Fant and T.J. Price, who both fouled out. They are no small parts of a sizable team, which has made it to two Big Dances in the past three years and whose program's all-time .665 winning percentage is only one spot behind UCLA.
So it was a big win for Stony Brook (3-2), a big step in the growth of a team that has no seniors. In fact, down the stretch, Pikiell had three freshmen on the floor -- Roland Nyama, Tyrell Sturdivant and Deshaun Thrower -- and he tossed in another, Bryan Sekunda, when he needed big free throws and a steady ballhandler.
Puriefoy said, "They handled themselves tremendously. I don't even think of them as freshmen anymore." Nyama and Sturdivant each scored 10 points.
The coach didn't think of this as just a proverbial learning experience. Nor does he think of his freshmen as kids. "The guys," he said, "did a great job. They got a great win today. I'm happy for them."