In Steve Pikiell’s 11 seasons as head coach, Stony Brook has won plenty of big games, posting at least 22 victories in six of the past seven seasons and reaching the America East championship game in five of the past six years. But the Seawolves have yet to win “THE” big one, the one that gets them the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
So Pikiell understands the question facing Stony Brook (25-6) when it meets Vermont (21-12) for the conference title at 11 a.m. Saturday at Island FCU Arena. Is this the day the Seawolves shed their 0-4 albatross and break through to accomplish the one goal that has eluded them?
Taking that final step is as much a mental hurdle as a physical challenge. “I tell them it’s 99 percent commotion,” Pikiell said. “Just play. I could talk about the 99 percent of things we’ve done. People don’t want to talk about it. That’s fine. It doesn’t matter what people want to talk about. This is the team that sacrificed, the team that got back to this point, the team that we are this year.”
Citing the obstacles his team has overcome this season, including the death of Rayshaun McGrew’s mother and the season-ending knee injury to three-point marksman Bryan Sekunda, Pikiell added, “It’s the hardest thing in basketball to do is to get back here. A lot of credit to our guys. We didn’t have many bad nights this year. We got through all those wars, and we’re back here for one more great game.”
After two straight title-game losses to Albany, it seemed the top-seeded Seawolves caught a break when the second-seeded Great Danes were upset by Hartford in the quarterfinals. But third-seeded Vermont, which scored a 14-point victory over the host Seawolves two weeks ago, is a tough matchup.
Catamounts guard Ernie Duncan was unstoppable, scoring 23 points in that game, and guards Trae Bell-Haynes, Cam Ward and Dre Wills also are perimeter threats. Vermont has size inside with Ethan O’Day, Kurt Steidl and reserves Drew Urquhart and Darren Payen, who transferred from Hofstra, to make life difficult for Jameel Warney, Stony Brook’s three-time America East player of the year.
Vermont ranks as the best-shooting team in the conference, just ahead of Stony Brook. “They have six guys in the rotation that have put up 20 or more points in a game,” Pikiell said. “They don’t turn it over, they have a lot of different weapons. They’re the most balanced team in the league scoring-wise. That’s why they’re a hard team to stop.”
The Seawolves are equally versatile. Warney, McGrew and wing man Ahmad Walker made the all-defensive team, and first-team all-conference guard Carson Puriefoy III and Lucas Woodhouse, who leads the America East in three-point accuracy (46.1 percent), give the Seawolves a pair of talented perimeter players.
“I’m just excited that we’re back with this opportunity,” Pikiell said. “ If you keep stepping to the plate, you’ve got a chance to get a great hit. We’ve got to play our best basketball, and if we do, it will be a great day.”