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Stony Brook’s pressure gauge has been lowered in NCAA Tournament debut

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Stony Brook fans and residents line the steps of Island Federal Credit Union Arena on campus on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, to send the team off to Des Moines, Iowa, on a high note for their first appearance in March Madness. No. 13 SBU will face No. 4 Kentucky in the East Region's first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. (Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware)

DES MOINES, Iowa - To the rest of the nation, Stony Brook is the little guy with the quirky name and history. But over the past seven seasons in the America East Conference basketball wars as they averaged 22.3 wins and reached five title games, they have been the big, bad Seawolves — at least until March, when they failed to blow the house down four times before finally reaching the NCAA Tournament this year.

They lived a tortured existence, generally laying waste to the league during the regular season before falling victim to cruel fate. That was especially true this season with Jameel Warney, Carson Puriefoy and Rayshaun McGrew in their final year of eligibility, striving to win the regular-season title for home court advantage, which was crucial to Saturday’s historic win over Vermont.

Now that the deed is done and they’re in the Big Dance as a decided first-round underdog against behemoth Kentucky, the pressure should be off, right? That’s not how coach Steve Pikiell sees it. For him, every game has pressure because of the desire to win, but he understands the seniors might feel a sense of relief.

“I know the seniors have heard that question and maybe that’s how they feel,” Pikiell said. “But I think we’ve played well all year long. I think we played loose in the championship game. People don’t think so, but I said, ‘We scored 53 points in the second half.’ That’s pretty loose.”

Warney responded to that pressure with the best game of his life, scoring 43 points, including 23 in the explosive rally in which Stony Brook scored 47 points in the final 15 minutes to wipe out a 15-point deficit.

His relief was palpable when he let out a primal scream at the buzzer and then took pictures with every fan who wanted one before getting a little choked up when the accomplishment sank in at the postgame news conference.

“We can finally play loose now,” Warney said. Thinking of Kentucky, he added, “We’ve played loose, but this is a new level. It’s a game we’re not supposed to win. We’re a dangerous team, but many people are still counting us out. Our confidence is up. We’ve already achieved history by getting to the tournament, so why not have some more fun and, hopefully, knock a team off?”

Against a lesser name, many would have regarded 13th-seeded Stony Brook (26-6) as a sleeper with a potential to advance. But not against John Calipari’s Wildcats (26-8), who struggled to blend their potential one-and-done freshmen with some very talented holdovers before hitting their stride with five straight wins.

Pikiell said the quest to make the NCAA never was about him, but that was a gift his players ached to give him. Point guard Lucas Woodhouse said the fact they did it was a weight off everyone’s shoulders.

“Yeah, I think there is a lot of pressure off the team, off the coaches,” Woodhouse said. “We’ve been trying to win a championship since coach Pikiell got here, and we’ve finally done it. We’re just elated. But if you’re there [in the NCAA], you might as well give it your best shot. We’re going to prepare like we do for any other big game.”

Of that, there is no doubt. Yes, the Seawolves are happy to be in Des Moines, of all places, and they know no one gives them a chance. But this is a team that won at Washington of the Pac-12 last season and then lost a 10-point, second-half lead at Vanderbilt of the SEC in November before falling in overtime.

The Seawolves are preparing to win no matter what anyone else believes. “I don’t think any real pressure is off,” junior forward Ahmad Walker said. “We take every game really seriously. We set out to win every game. That’s our mentality and what we’re going to continue to do.”

Still, if the underdog role is a relaxing change from the America East grind, the Seawolves welcome it.

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