As good as Stony Brook's core of juniors Jameel Warney, Carson Puriefoy III and Rayshaun McGrew has been this season, opponents have done everything in their power to take away one or two of those primary options and force the Seawolves to rely on the inexperienced role players surrounding them.
Lowly University of Maryland-Baltimore County threatened to pull off a monumental upset when it took a five-point lead against SBU with just over nine minutes left to play Wednesday night at Island FCU Arena. Warney was scoreless and had taken only three shots, and Puriefoy had just seven points at that stage. Neither seemed to be looking for his shot -- Warney because he was being double-teamed and Puriefoy because he was trying not to take bad shots and feed into a recent shooting slump.
When Stony Brook needed them most, Warney and Puriefoy combined to score 17 of the Seawolves' final 23 points in a 64-54 victory. Despite the close call, Coach Steve Pikiell was happy with the way his stars handled the defensive pressure they faced and happier still that the supporting cast made major contributions.
"I like the fact we involved everyone in our scoring," Pikiell said. "We're one of the youngest teams in the country."
Pikiell used a 10-man rotation against UMBC (2-14, 0-3 America East), and seven were sophomores or freshmen. So, opponents naturally are finding ways to gang up on Warney and Puriefoy in particular. Even if they take just one away, it makes it much more difficult for Stony Brook (11-7, 2-1) to win.
Remarkably, the Seawolves got away with a poor shooting night when they scored the biggest win in program history two weeks ago at then-No. 13 Washington. But it caught up with them in the loss last Saturday at Vermont. Starting with the Washington game, where he made the tying three-pointer near the end but shot only 2 of 12, Puriefoy went through a four-game stretch in which he was 6 of 42 from the field, including 2 of 15 from three-point range.
"They're playing me with bigger guys, trying to get me into the lane and swallow me up with their length," Puriefoy said about the increased attention he's receiving. "I have to do a better job of getting in there and kicking and finding my teammates.
"I was trying to let the game come to me tonight. I wasn't trying to be too aggressive to score. The defense started keying on my teammates, which gave me open shots, and they did a great job of finding me. I wanted to let the game come to me, and I took it."
Pikiell said UMBC used some new zone defenses against Warney, utilizing double- and triple-teaming. He spent most of the first 30 minutes coming out from under the basket to receive entry passes and finding his teammates for easy baskets while recording a career-high eight assists.
"They were just double-teaming me every time I touched the ball, but my teammates did a great job cutting off of me and I did a great job of finding them," Warney said. "I played well in the first half on defense and contributed in other ways. I'm happy with the way I played."
Pikiell has encouraged Warney to be more selfish on offense, but the coach said, "I don't want him shooting when he's double-teamed. He's such a good passer that he doesn't have to score to dominate."
Pikiell acknowledged Puriefoy's recent shooting slump but noted the Seawolves were 3-1 in that four-game stretch and have won six of their past seven. He praised Puriefoy's patience against UMBC. The point guard had 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting and made both three-pointers he attempted.
"He took good shots, got good ball movement, and at the end, he was the guy who got fouled," Pikiell said of Puriefoy. "He's No. 1 on the scouting report, and Jameel is No. 1A."
Puriefoy and Warney must learn to play with a big bull's-eye on their backs for Stony Brook to succeed this season. They did just that in the final nine minutes against UMBC, but it's only going to get tougher for them from here.