Less than a month ago, Stony Brook Arena was a dimly lit, dusty cavern with big curtains suspended from the rafters to separate several basketball courts for recreational play by the students. But in the blink of an eye, it was transformed last night into the site of a National Invitation Tournament first-round matchup between Division I neophyte Stony Brook and Big Ten power Illinois, which is five years removed from playing for the NCAA title.
TV trucks were lined up north of the arena, running cable, and banks of klieg lights in the rafters lit the spit-polished court as if it were Madison Square Garden. Pretty heady stuff for a program that seemed light years away from this kind of moment when athletic director Jim Fiore, who is in his seventh year, hired coach Steve Pikiell five seasons ago.
"You can imagine seven years ago people in Setauket didn't know we had an athletic program," Fiore said, referring to the nearby Three Village community.
"If we had 10,000 tickets tonight, we'd be sold out. This game has been sold out for two days."
Until now, one of the primary links between the university and the surrounding community was the soccer fields by the commuter parking lot south of campus that Three Village Soccer uses. That began to change when the football stadium went up over pockets of protest from some in the area. But that suspicion slowly has given way to a sense of excitement and pride.
Instead of fears associated with NIMBY syndrome that is pervasive on Long Island, there's a growing sense of pride as if people are telling themselves, "An NIT game in our backyard. Who would have believed such a thing?"
A crowd of 4,423 crammed Stony Brook Arena last night with SRO fans standing on the running track ringing the building above the grandstands. Judging by the volume and total student involvement to the end of Stony Brook's gutty 76-66 loss to Illinois, there's a growing sense of identity on campus.
When the Seawolves pulled within five at 59-54 on Chris Martin's three-point play with seven minutes left, the place erupted like any other big-time college game. It was . . . fun. A true college atmosphere, the kind of thing that makes you want to come back for more.
When Stony Brook came out of a timeout at that juncture, both Bryan Dougher and Muhammad El-Amin had open looks from three-point range and a chance to make it a two-point game, but neither could get the ball to go down. Illinois coach Bruce Weber expressed admiration for the job Pikiell has done at a place with no basketball tradition.
"We've got a good program, and people are starting to take notice," Pikiell said. "This isn't just a lacrosse town anymore. We're going to try and make it a basketball town . . . Now the community is involved and students are involved. It's Division I basketball. The environment was great tonight, and they really saw a dose of March Madness and that hasn't been the case. It's exciting. It really is."
Without a doubt, Fiore hired the right man to make Stony Brook basketball matter. Describing what he saw in Pikiell, Fiore said, "Steve was a good fit philosophically, he was a good fit for what it took in recruiting, and he was naïve enough to think he could get it done here."
If nothing else, Pikiell and his players succeeded in bringing a dead arena to life for one shining night.