WEST HARTFORD, Conn.
They got a taste.
Coaches, players, students, the Stony Brook University administration and even fans in the community who might have felt disconnected to the neighboring campus, they all got a taste of what it's like when a Division I team in a major sport becomes competitive. Fifth-year coach Steve Pikiell and his young team gave everyone their money's worth on the way to winning the school's first America East basketball title.
The only disappointing part is that the ride ended too soon. The Seawolves' 70-63 loss to Boston University in the semifinals of the conference tournament Sunday at the University of Hartford terminated the No. 1 seed's hopes of hosting the tournament final next Saturday at noon. The chance to host a nationally televised ESPN game goes to the University of Vermont, which will have its hands full with the Terriers if they play as well as they did against Stony Brook.
Pikiell knew it would be tough after watching BU dismantle host Hartford by 39 points in the semifinals. Corey Lowe had 26 points in that game, and he scored another 24 against the Seawolves, hitting a 35-footer as the shot clock expired for a 37-21 lead just before the end of the first half.
The game looked over right there, but the Seawolves absorbed it and fought back unbelievably well to take a 53-48 lead. "We battled tonight until the end," Pikiell said. "We came out and punched them right back."
Sophomore Bryan Dougher and junior Chris Martin totaled 16 points in a 23-4 run that gave the Seawolves a 44-41 lead. Senior Muhammad El-Amin hit some big baskets to help push it to 53-48. But in the end, SBU made only 10 of 21 foul shots and committed 19 turnovers, including eight by El-Amin, who faced tough double-teaming.
Dougher hit a big three to pull within 65-63 with 1:03 left, but he was called for traveling next time down, and the game slipped away.
"We came back from 16 down to go up plus-five," Pikiell said. "It's hard to do that against a good basketball team.
"Bryan gets the travel; you've got to make free throws. I really think free throws are what didn't get us over the hump. We could have taken a five-point game and made it nine. We kept leaving them on the table. Mo, Dougher, Tommy [Brenton] missed them. Generally, I want them to have the ball and make free throws . . . I feel bad for our guys. We're tough as nails."
It was a hard way to go out, especially considering Stony Brook swept the season series from BU. But that's college basketball at tournament time. There's a lot of heartbreak, and the Seawolves got a taste of that, too.
The saving grace is that the regular-season title earned them a berth in the National Invitation Tournament, and they've put in a bid to host a game, so the locals might get to sample postseason play.
The other big positive is that Pikiell's team is young. El-Amin is the only senior starter. Of course, he's the America East player of the year and the team's leading scorer, so the coach has his work cut out for him to replace what El-Amin did for the Seawolves.
He doesn't plan to waste any time.
"We took a huge step with our program this year," Pikiell said. "We were picked fourth in the league, and we win the league outright. I've got to get back out on the road and recruit tomorrow. My assistants will all be on the road. We're a determined program, and we're close."
So close they can taste it.