Kaela Hilaire goes by ‘KK’ on the Stony Brook women’s basketball team. Really what the Seawolves are banking on is that the graduate transfer from Seton Hall can be their ‘Special K.’ The former Floral Park High School star and Newsday’s 2016 Long Island Player of the Year is stepping into perhaps the most important position on the team — point guard — and SBU is looking to improve on a 23-8 record from last season in which it finished third in the America East.
The early returns inside the conference suggest they could do that. In a preseason poll of coaches, Stony Brook was ranked second behind prohibitive favorite Maine.
“Other teams are going to see us as a team you need to bring your best to beat,” said junior forward India Pagan, a preseason all-conference selection. “We have to be ready for another team’s best shot because we [established] ourselves last season.”
The 6-1 Pagan made 30 starts in 2018-19, averaging 12.1 points and 6.0 rebounds. This season she leads a front court that could be formidable. Coach Caroline McCombs hasn’t named her front-line starters but her options include 6-4 junior Oksana Gouchie-Provencher, who started all 31 games a season ago and averaged 7.1 points and 4.3 rebounds, and Cheyenne Clark, a 5-11 grad student who was the team’s top rebounder two seasons ago before missing last season because of injury.
But so much is going to come down to the play of the backcourt, where Hilaire could be a major factor.
Hilaire averaged 29.8 points in the 2015-16 season and powered Floral Park to the state Class A title game. She was Seton Hall’s primary starter at the point as a freshman and sophomore and played more as a sixth-person last season before graduating early. She said graduating gave her “the opportunity to go somewhere else if I wanted and, honestly, gave me the perfect opportunity to start over and come back home really, come back to Long Island.”
She averaged 7.4 points and 4.5 assists in 87 games for Seton Hall, but given her prolific scoring history has the potential to fill the shoes of departed leading scorer Shorty Johnson, who averaged 16.5 points.
McCombs described 5-7 freshman Gigi Gonzalez as “a combo guard who can really shoot” and she, along with sophomore Annie Warren and 5-10 juniors Hailey Zeise and Jonae Cox, are in the mix for the starting backcourt.
Gone are graduated guards Johnson and Jerell Matthews who averaged a combined 32.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists. So the backcourt is potentially the key for the Seawolves with Hilaire and Gonzalez both having to learn the offense.
“We have new players running the point guard position for us,” McCombs said. “[We] have post players that know what they’re used to and point guards that don’t know what that looks like yet. So that takes a lot of time. And we’ve spent a good amount of time trying to figure that out. But the guard positions will tell us how far we may be able to go . . . We replaced a lot so maybe it will come from every player giving a little more.”
“Chemistry is going to be key for us and I see it coming together,” Pagan said. “I see KK getting used to where I like getting the ball. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a little while, we’re all finding each other and it comes together.”