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Stony Brook women's basketball has won 20 straight as team eyes first trip to NCAA Tournament

Stony Brook guard Kaela Hilarie.

Stony Brook guard Kaela Hilarie. Credit: Stony Brook Athletics/Jim Harrison

March Madness may be descending on the Stony Brook campus again.

It was pandemonium four years ago when the Jameel Warney-led men’s basketball program had a breakthrough season and earned the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since its 1999 jump into Division I athletics. Now it may be the women’s program’s turn.

The Seawolves are enjoying an unprecedented campaign. On Saturday, they defeated New Hampshire, 52-50, to improve to 23-1. The victory also extended their winning streak to 20 games, the longest current streak in the country. They have a three-game lead on second-place UMass Lowell in the America East standings and have won both meetings, by 19 at home and 20 on the road.

That one loss? It was Nov. 17 at nationally ranked Arkansas. Since then the momentum has been building.

There was a road victory at Pittsburgh of the ACC, a Puerto Rico Classic Tournament title triumph against Western Michigan and a double-overtime win over Patriot League front-runner Bucknell. In conference play, there was a four-point takedown of America East preseason favorite and defending champion Maine.

“We go into every game now knowing what we’re capable of and expecting to win,” said senior point guard Kaela Hilaire, a grad transfer from Seton Hall who hails from Baldwin. “Everyone has a role. Everyone has proved themselves to each other so there’s trust and belief. And there’s great depth . . . It’s really what you want in a team.”

If there is a single thing that might stand out about the Seawolves this season, it’s a defense — headlined by junior Hailey Zeise — that allows an average of 54.3 points and ranks 12th in Division I. Stony Brook coach Caroline McCombs said “defense is our identity” and that Zeise typically draws the toughest assignments.

Another reason  SBU already has been able to equal the number of wins from last season is   the arrival of Hilaire, who is averaging 13.2 points and 5.1 assists. India Pagan, a 6-1 junior forward, has become the primary scorer and raised her average by about two to 13.7 points. Cheyenne Clark, a 5-11 grad student forward, returned after missing last season because of an injury and is averaging eight rebounds.

Getting a little more from each player has added up.

“I see it as being about program growth and becoming consistent over the last few years,” said McCombs, in her sixth season. “We’ve raised our standards and you know who you are and who you want to become . . . They’ve grown into it together and it’s special to see.”

Said   Zeise: “These games weren’t won on the days they happened. They were won back in the last postseason and in July and August when we’re here in the summer really putting in as much work as we possibly can. They are won in preparation and all the little things just really have been adding up for us.”

As a new arrival expected to lead as point guard, Hilaire went full immersion with her teammates and McCombs to understand everyone’s needs. McCombs cites her leadership as a key factor in the team’s success. “I talk to Coach McCombs every single day,” Hilaire said.

McCombs asked Pagan to “become more of an elite scorer because that was the role we needed her to be in.” Conference foes have increasingly employed double-teaming to slow her, but she’s still excelled.

“She’s faced a ton of different coverages this season, but that’s where her strengths of seeing the floor and passing the ball have paid off,” McCombs said. “She has composure and looks for that secondary option.”

Zeise’s contribution rarely shows up in the boxscore, except on the line of an opponent’s best scorer. She embraces being the stopper.

“I really take pride in my defense,” she said. “I’ve never really cared about being the best — I’ve just wanted to be the best for my team, and my role this year is really just trying to be a defensive presence for us.

“[We’re] really just stepping up in our roles,” Zeise added. “Nobody’s role is bigger than somebody else’s, no matter how many points you score. Everybody’s role is really important. And we really do a good job of focusing on that practice. And that’s where our focus in games really starts.”

For McCombs, player development is about more than just on-court skills. There  also is a psychological aspect. To that end, she had her team read "Pound the Stone: 7 Lessons to Develop Grit on the Road to Mastery.'' She described the philosophy it preaches as “committing to a process of being great and learning from your successes and failures.”

“Pound the Stone” has become a sort of mantra for the Seawolves, one that is repeated often. As Zeise explained, “It’s not going to be the 10th or 100th or 1,000th one that does it. It’s all of them together that finally gets it done.”

If SBU is to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance, it will have to earn the America East’s automatic bid with three victories in its conference tournament. It can play all home games in the tourney if it finishes first in the regular season.

“We’re not looking ahead, only to the next game,” Zeise said. “People want to talk about the NCAA Tournament, stuff like that. We’re not even looking at that. People want to talk about our winning streak. We’re not looking in the past. It’s next game up.”

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