Stony Brook will approach the next game, which figures to be the biggest one it ever has had, the way it approached Monday night. “Just leave it all on the floor,” senior forward Rayshaun McGrew said. “You never know when it’s your last game so play every game like it’s your last.”
Judging from the way they started and especially by the way they finished the America East semifinal before a rocking full house Monday night, the Seawolves were determined not to have it be their finale. They came out with energy and gained more as the game went along, beating Hartford, 80-64, and reaching the conference final for the fifth time in six years.
Of course, they haven’t won it, which could have made them super nervous and extra tight about walking on the edge of a cliff again. Far from it. They turned back a game visitor — the team that had knocked off Stony Brook’s perennial nemesis, Albany — and refused to be bothered by ghosts of past losses. They are hopeful, not fearful about another trip to the final, this time against Vermont Saturday morning at home.
“You know what? It’s a new game, it’s a new team, it’s a new venue. Everything is new this year,” coach Steve Pikiell said, pointing out that Ahmad Walker and Lucas Woodhouse were not around for the last-second heartbreak at Albany last March. “And I think our veteran guys are better and smarter. We’re very different than we were last year.”
They looked different Monday night than they had in a first-round struggle against eighth-seeded UMBC in the first round. McGrew got Stony Brook going by hitting three right corner jump shots in the first three minutes. Center Jameel Warney was solid all the way through, with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Their senior classmate, point guard Carson Puriefoy, was at his best when it mattered the most, scoring 19 of his 22 points in the second half. He also had 10 rebounds.
It was all so impressive that Hartford coach John Gallagher said, “I think if Stony Brook wins Saturday, they’re a Sweet 16 kind of team.”
Whoa, not so fast. Stony Brook (25-6) knows that is the biggest “if” going. They have been oh so close without making it even to the first round of the Big Dance, let alone the Sweet 16. The seniors have been carrying that void their whole careers. But Monday night, they spoke of it as a challenge, not a void.
Warney said he has learned this: “The power of one possession. Just play your heart out every possession because the play you don’t give 100 percent on could be the game changer.”
They played that way Monday night against a game opponent (10-23). Led by Jalen Ross and Pancake Thomas (21 and 18 points, respectively), Hartford drew even late in the first half before Stony Brook closed on a 5-0 run, then got progressively better. The Seawolves were loose enough to make 16 of 22 free throws overall, as opposed to 27 of 50 last week.
Walker nearly shook the rafters — and did all but scrape his hand on them — when he blocked Thomas on a fast break attempt. The roars were piercing when Kameron Mitchell hit a big three-pointer and Puriefoy followed with another. So bring on Saturday, and the pressure that comes with it.
“It’s one more home game,” Puriefoy said. “We know what to expect. We’ve been there before. We just have to play our game.”
They will play like it’s the last one, trying like crazy to make sure it will not be.