BURLINGTON, Vt. - No matter how many times March has taken the air out of them, Stony Brook's players always insist they will bounce back and that the next time will be better. Sunday clearly was one of those next times. In fact, it was a few of them.
The Seawolves earned their way into the America East final by bouncing back, and back and back again, to score a 79-77 semifinal victory at Vermont.
First they recovered from a 16-point first-half deficit to take an 11-point lead with 9:09 to go in the game. Then they recovered from a run by Vermont in front of its raucous fans that tied it at 71 with 3:09 left. Finally, they withstood one last attempt by Vermont at the buzzer, as Ethan O'Day, the Catamounts' top player, had his baseline jumper deflected by Jameel Warney, the conference's player of the year and defensive player of the year.
So Stony Brook, which has had a series of disheartening losses in the conference tournament, will play for the America East title for the fourth time in five years when it faces Albany on the road Saturday. The feeling among the Seawolves on Sunday, after beating a team that had overcome a 17-point deficit to win on Long Island on Feb. 7, was that anything is possible.
"I don't think there's any symmetry. There's just two good teams battling," said Carson Puriefoy, who asserted himself with 15 of his 17 points in Stony Brook's 50-point second half, including 10 in the half's first 4:51.
"We knew coming in it was going to be a battle. We knew they play great at home. We had it in the back of our mind that we did lose that 17-point lead. But the moral is we never gave up this whole game and I'm proud of all our guys."
Stony Brook -- which turned the game around with a 32-6 run in a span of 9:31 -- needed every ounce of experience from Puriefoy and fellow first-team all-conference player Warney. The latter had game highs of 24 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks. It also needed every bit of energy and production from freshman guard Deshaun Thrower, who was averaging 3.9 points and never had more than nine before Sunday, when he scored 18, including 16 in the second half.
"It was just being aggressive," said Thrower, a former quarterback who led Muskegon High to two consecutive Michigan state titles. "Shots weren't falling for us in the first half, but Coach kept telling us to shoot, the shots are going to fall."
Said Puriefoy: "All season, I told him he has to grow up fast."
Coach Steve Pikiell pointed out that Stony Brook has won eight in a row since the loss to Vermont and Thrower "has started every one of those games."
Vermont coach John Becker said: "In a game like this, you need a guy to step up, and I thought Thrower did that. Everything he threw went in. Credit to him. He made tough shots."
Thrower shot 5-for-6 in the second half, 3-for-3 on three pointers. None was bigger than the two-pointer he made with the shot clock running down and 25 seconds left. It gave Stony Brook (23-10) a 77-73 lead.
Still, Vermont (18-13) didn't give up -- not even after a turnover by Hector Harold (17 points) with 10 seconds left and Stony Brook leading by three. A driving layup by Trae Bell-Haynes with 2.7 seconds left made it 79-77, and when O'Day tied up Thrower on the inbounds pass, Vermont took possession. O'Day let fly a desperate last attempt, but Warney deflected it in the direction of Albany.
Warney, who was not given credit for a block in the official statistics, said, "Yeah, I touched the last shot'' and jokingly added, "I need that block.''
He also said, "We can't be happy with this win if we're going to lose next Saturday."
But Stony Brook has full faith it can win Saturday. And it was quite happy with this win.