DES MOINES, Iowa
If you build it, they will come.
That’s what the voice in his head said to Ray Kinsella in “Field of Dreams,” leading him to build a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
When Steve Pikiell arrived at Stony Brook to pick up the pieces of a basketball program that was on academic probation and basically in shambles, it must have felt like that. An impossible, quixotic quest.
Once you understand that, the Seawolves’ 85-57 loss to Kentucky in their first NCAA Tournament appearance in history isn’t as much a disappointment as it is a monument to what it took for Pikiell and his dedicated staff to build what really is a model program. Stony Brook has won at least 22 games in six of the past seven seasons, reached five America East championship games and now has an NCAA banner to hang in Island FCU Arena.
They built it, and Jameel Warney came four years ago. Carson Puriefoy III came along with him. Rayshaun McGrew joined them as a transfer a year later. Together, they suffered along the way, but they believed and finally broke the door down. The Seawolves went 26-7, including an 18-game winning streak that was ther longest in the nation, and reached their NCAA goal.
The matchup with an underseeded Kentucky team that overpowered the Seawolves with length and athleticism was unfortunate. “We didn’t want to have this outcome,” Puriefoy said, “but no one can take away from us that we actually made history for the school and the community and we did what we set out to do, which was make the NCAA Tournament. We’re just really proud of our team and our coaching staff and everyone who was involved.”
Puriefoy amplified those sentiments in an emotional Instagram post Friday in which he spoke of how he grew into a man during his time at Stony Brook. They all did.
McGrew came from a rough neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago to find a safe, nurturing environment in which he could grow. When his mother, Ineater, died of cancer in December, a network of loving friends was there to support him.
Describing his journey recently, McGrew said, “It changed my life in a huge way. It just gave me a new family. That was the thing that drove me to Stony Brook. When I came here, everybody welcomed me with open arms and with love.
“I can always come back and talk to these people [at Stony Brook] whenever I need something. They always tell me, ‘You’re one phone call away.’ It’s really not a goodbye here. It’s just a ‘see you later.’ ”
Then there was Warney. Three-time America East player of the year only begins to tell his story. Kentucky coach John Calipari paid his respects, saying after the game that he took the unusual step of double-teaming the underrated NBA prospect every time he touched the ball.
“I said, ‘This kid could go for 40 against us, so let’s not let him get going,” Calipari said. “He still got 23 [and 15 rebounds]. I’m losing my mind . . . He’s a great kid and works hard and you can tell so proud of being a part of that, basically bringing Stony Brook into what it is today.”
Warney admitted the loss hurt, but it should be noted that after missing six of his first seven shots, he hung tough to make nine of his last 14. That’s his character.
As Pikiell said, “He’s a terrific player, and he is a better kid than he is a player.”
When Pikiell and his seniors and the rest of the Seawolves reached the end of their arduous trek to the NCAA Tournament, their pride in the accomplishment was tempered in the moment by the bittersweet feeling of knowing they didn’t play their best game.
It wasn’t heaven. It was Iowa. But it was an experience they will cherish forever.