DES MOINES, Iowa - Remember the old television series “Quantum Leap?” That could have been the title for Stony Brook’s long-awaited maiden voyage in the NCAA Tournament.
As a 13th seed, the Seawolves could have been matched against Cal, Iowa State or Duke. Any of them, even Duke, would have been a better matchup than Kentucky, which was a fourth seed in the East Regional while the team it beat for the SEC Tournament title, Texas A&M, was a third seed in the Midwest.
Coach John Calipari’s Wildcats, with their long list of five-star recruits, was at the opposite end of the size and skill spectrum from Stony Brook. As unfair as it looked on paper, reality was far worse Thursday night on the Wells Fargo Arena court, where the Seawolves took an 85-57 beating.
When Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell was asked if things might have been better against the other fourth seeds, he sighed. “That is a really good team,” he said. “You can’t pick who you get in the tournament.”
It wasn’t that the Seawolves didn’t belong on the same court. On the contrary, they displayed their defense and rebounding prowess in a scrappy first half in which they had a 30-23 advantage on the boards and held the Wildcats to 32.4 percent shooting (11-for-34).
Offense was another story. Stony Brook and Kentucky were tied at 10 with 11:25 left in the first half, and what made that a phenomenal result for the Seawolves is they were shooting 3-for-17 at that point. That ultimately became 3-for-25 — 12 percent — as the Wildcats built toward a 33-19 halftime lead.
Guard Carson Puriefoy III, who shot 3-for-17 and scored 10 points, said, “Their bigs are athletic. They switched out on ball screens at the top [of the key] and could cover me. I don’t see that.”
Not in the America East.
Three-time conference player of the year Jameel Warney has proved himself against major conference competition plenty of times, including a 22-point, 11-rebound effort in an overtime loss at Vanderbilt, the third SEC team to make the NCAA field. Warney outplayed 7-foot forward Damian Jones, a projected NBA lottery pick, that night.
But just as happens in the America East, Kentucky coach John Calipari took the rare step of doubling Warney every single time he got the ball in the low post. “The respect we had for him, we never played him one-on-one,” Calipari said. “Think about that. We just don’t play that way.”
But this time, the Wildcats ran 6-8 power forward Alex Poythress and 6-11 Skal Labissiere (a potential one-and-done lottery pick), 6-9 Derek Willis and 6-9 Marcus Lee at Warney.
The difference compared to Vanderbilt, Warney said, was that Kentucky has “multiple bigs who can run and jump. They go 10, 11 deep. They wore us out.”
Warney made 18 of 22 shots in his brilliant 43-point game against Vermont to put the Seawolves in the NCAA Tournament, but he began with 1-for-7 shooting against Kentucky. Warney adjusted and finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds and 10-for-21 shooting, but his teammates totaled 10 field goals.
After such a beating, it’s hard to remember the exultation the Seawolves and their fans felt last Saturday when they made school history. But Warney found the silver lining. Recalling last season’s America East title loss to Albany on a buzzer-beating three-pointer, he said, “This hurts, but it’s a way better feeling than last year losing that America East final.”
Pikiell looked as if he’d been gut-punched, but he found a glimmer of humor and perspective. “We played a great team in its 55th time in the tournament,” he said. “Maybe our 55th time, we’ll look like them, too.”