Stony Brook head coach Caroline McCombs reacts during the second...

Stony Brook head coach Caroline McCombs reacts during the second half of an America East semifinal women's basketball game against the UMass Lowell River Hawks at Federal Credit Arena on Sunday, March 7, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Stony Brook women’s basketball team enters its game against Arizona on Monday fully cognizant of the giant that the Seawolves have been tasked with defeating.

They know Wildcats point guard Aari McDonald is one of the best players in the country, and less than a month away from declaring for the WNBA draft. They’re aware that they’re being pitted against one of the best defenses in the country, and they understand few are predicting that Stony Brook, the 14th seed in the Mercado Region, will topple No. 3 Arizona in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament game in San Antonio.

And while all that is true, coach Caroline McCombs knows that the Seawolves have mettle.

"When our back is against the wall, I think we really dig down, lock in even more," she said. "I think we have a very competitive group. That’s something that excites me. So, when they have an opportunity to be really challenged, they really take that on and take it personally, so I’m excited to see how we respond in this environment."

Stony Brook goes into the contest with a few strengths of its own. Defense is the heartbeat of the team and balanced scoring means the Wildcats can’t focus on just one offensive threat. Ball security will be a key, with the Seawolves averaging 15.8 turnovers per game and Arizona averaging 8.4 steals. Stony Brook has the 30th best defensive rating in the country, according to HerHoopStats, while the Wildcats, with their tougher schedule, is 13th. The Seawolves have allowed a fourth-stingiest 50.7 points per game and Arizona is 22nd (56.0).

The offensive disparity is greater, with the Seawolves ranked 148th to the Wildcats’ 59th.

"They’re not going to make it easy for you to run your offense," McCombs said. "They’re long, they’re athletic. It’s going to be difficult. We have to be really deliberate with our offense and our execution and our passing and our cutting and our screening and all of those things. The more we can spread the court out wide, I think the better our opportunities."

But Hailey Zeise, the graduate student who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility to help bring her team to its first NCAA Tournament appearance, said Stony Brook is ready.

"We’re really strong in our identity," she said. "Our defensive presence has carried us through this whole season and that’s what we’re going to focus on . . . [We’re going to] try not to get caught up in their game. Everyone is playing their best basketball right now . . . Arizona is for sure going to bring their best, but we’re also going to bring our best."

And while the Wildcats — who lost in the semifinals of the Pac-12 championship tournament — has a number of weapons, McDonald is their most potent. She averaged 19.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists this season, and is an overall offensive menace, with the ability to score in transition and create her own shot. According to ESPN’s mock WNBA draft, she’s predicted to be the eighth selection.

"Everyone’s got to sprint back in transition," McCombs said. "We need to build a wall from the three-point line and in and really make it difficult for her to even see an angle, because if she can see one, she’s going to take it. So we really have to pack it in there’s nowhere to go. She’s crafty and she’s very good at changing directions . . . That’s going to be a huge point of emphasis for us."

Zeise is confident the Seawolves can find a way to limit her, even though a player like that can’t be shut down completely. And no matter what happens, Stony Brook will have already made program history by making the tournament, a fact that decreases the sting of last season, when an even more dominant Seawolves team had their season canceled on the eve of the America East final.

"It feels like a dream, honestly," she said. "I think every athlete dreams of making it to the biggest stage, making it to the Big Dance, and just to be here, especially just after everything we’ve been through, it just feels like a sense of relief. You just feel in your heart that it was all worth it."