All photos and video: Jon Wagner, New York Sports Day
STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Maybe it was the new arena. Or perhaps it was Jameel Warney simply refusing to let it happen again.
After falling short of winning the America East championship game in four of the five previous years on four different floors — including two at home — the top-seeded Stony Brook Seawolves (26-6, 17-2, America East) finally broke through to reach their first NCAA tournament, over the third-seeded Vermont Catamounts (21-13, 13-6 America East), as Warney’s tied an America East title game record with a career-high 43 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots to help his team rally from a 15-point second-half deficit to an 80-74 win at the Island Federal Credit Union Arena before a raucous sellout crowd of 4,109 that stormed the court after the final buzzer.
While equaling the national high for the most shots made in a game this season, the 6-foot-8, 255-pound senior forward from Plainfield, N.J. ironically tied the 2004 America East title game record of former Vermont standout forward Tyler Coppenrath, while making 18 of 22 shots — all from in or around the paint — including 11 of 13 makes in the second half, when Warney scored 25 of Stony Brook’s 53 second-half points.
Warney’s 17th made basket was the most impressive and extremely clutch. As his left hand was being pulled down by junior forward Kurt Steidl (without a foul call), Warney grabbed an offensive rebound with his right hand, and in the same motion, put home a tough shot that gave the Seawolves a 75-72 edge with 1:15 remaining, 13 seconds before fellow senior and New Jersey native, Carson Puriefoy drew a charge at the other end on sophomore guard Trae Bell-Haynes, who did all he could to will Vermont to victory with 15 of his team-high 17 points coming after halftime.
“A missed shot is like pass to me, being one of the best offensive rebounding guys in the country,” said Warney, who ranks fourth nationally with 4.39 offensive boards per game. “Once the shot went in, I knew we were one stop away from making history.”
Bell-Haynes said, “We couldn’t rebound down the stretch… we were getting that initial stop that we needed, but it was the second and third shots and opportunities that kind of killed us.”
Overcoming a rough 2-for-11 start from the field, Puriefoy (23 points) made three of his last four shots — with all of those makes coming from behind the arc — while Warney added 13 points during a game-turning 29-13 run that transformed a game-high 48-33 Vermont lead, with 15:17 left, into a 62-61 Stony Brook edge with 5:59 to play.
That was the first lead for the Seawolves (who led for only 9:24, compared to the Catamounts leading for 27:33) since they went up, 17-15, on a dunk by Warney, with 8:14 left in the opening half.
However, Vermont quickly regained a 68-64 lead behind a 3-pointer by redshirt freshman guard Ernie Duncan (11 points) and four points (on a trey and free throw) from sophomore guard Cam Ward (10 points).
But Warney tied the game with consecutive layups on the Stony Brook’s next two trips before junior guard Ahmad Walker (six points, four assists) put the Seawolves ahead to stay, 69-68, on a free throw with 3:14 left.
At the time Vermont — which ended the first half on a 26-12 stretch to lead, 36-27, at intermission — took the game’s largest lead, the Catamounts were shooting 60.6 percent (20-for-33) while Stony Brook was at 33.3 percent (12-for-36).
But as the Seawolves — who were led the America East in scoring (76.7 points per game) and points allowed (63.1 points per contest) — finished 69.6 percent (16-for-23) from the floor, they also picked up their defensive intensity and held Vermont to just 33.3 percent (7-for-21), to help offset all 27 bench points in the game coming from the Catamounts.
Stony Brook — the conference’s second-worst free throw shooting team (67 percent) — also bettered its free throw shooting, going 17-for-21 at the line after a 2-for-7 start. That included Puriefoy — who missed a key, late free throw and had a costly turnover that helped Albany overcome a 7-point deficit in the final two minutes to beat the Seawolves in last year’s conference title game — making seven straight foul shots before missing his final one after Stony Brook was already comfortably in front in the final seconds.
“I think you have to go through last year to get to this place so you don’t make those same kind of mistakes [again],” said head coach Steve Pikiell, who took over the program before the 2005-06 season, and only won 20 games over his first three years before winning at least 22 games in six of the last seven seasons.
“I’m real proud of what we’ve built here,” Pikiell continued. “We had five games that started games last year that did not start a game this year. We had our best shooter (sophomore Bryan Sekunda) go down three weeks ago and we got through every obstacle.”
A year ago was the closest the Seawolves — who joined Division I and the America East Conference for the 1999-00 season — had come to making the Big Dance.
Had Stony Brook not pulled it out this time, the Seawolves — who before losing last year, also dropped America East title games by two points at Boston University in 2011, by eight to Vermont the following year (at the old Stony Brook Arena, before it was refurbished into Stony Brook’s present home on the same spot) and by nine to Albany two years ago (at the roughly 1,700-seat on campus Pritchard Gymnasium) — would have become the first team in the league to lose five tournament championship games before winning their first.
“Everyone else was worried about that,” Pikiell said. “I never had been. I had always talked about the other 99 other things had done. Everybody else talked about the one thing we hadn’t [done].”
Yet that one thing — securing the program’s first NCAA tournament berth — might have continued to elude Pikiell’s team if not for the efforts of Warney, whose teammates, Puriefoy’s 5-for-15 included, shot just 27 percent (10-for-37).
On matching Coppenrath’s record, Warney (the clear choice for the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and who, along with Coppenrath and Reggie Lewis, is one of only three players to be a three-time America East Player of the Year) humbly said, “I’d like to thank my teammates, [especially] my point guards, for giving me the ball. I was being aggressive from the start. Before the game, Coach said I [should] put 20 shots up. I didn’t know if I could do that, but I did it today.”
Considering that 82.5 percent of his club’s points came from his two best players, Pikiell said, “I didn’t care how we won the game. I told [Warney] 20 shots before the game,” before joking, “I think I’m going to tell him 40 next time.”
He added of Warney, “He’s been great and I think he wanted to cement his legacy as by far the best player we’ve ever had in school history. But he’s the best kid, too. I couldn’t be more happy for him… when he signed with us, I always told people, ‘He’s the best player we ever signed.’”
Yet Warney still needed the help of Puriefoy, who said of the win, “It’s an incredible feeling,” before adding, “Me and Jameel we’re taking before the game, saying, ‘This is our last chance [to reach the NCAA tournament]. We’ve gotta lead these guys.’ I think we did a good job of doing that today.”
Especially after facing a significant hole.
“We’ve been down plenty of points at halftime all year,” Puriefoy said. “I don’t think that we ever thought that we ever thought that we were out of the game. We have great resolve. We just listened to our coaching staff, that we had to defend, and once we do that, our offense will come around — and it did. I’m just extremely proud of this group for staying tough, and we got it done.”
And when it came to the thoughts of past title games, Puriefoy added, “My mindset was, ‘We’re not gonna let this happen [again].’ We’re a senior laden group. We’ve got a bunch of veteran guys and we know that even though we’re down, we can come back from any deficit.”
Pikiell quipped later, “I wanted to make it very interesting for everybody, hence the nine-point disadvantage in the first half.”
On a more serious note, Warney said, “Usually, we’ve been up a lot or down a lot for most of the season, so it wasn’t [anything] new to us. We’ve got a big chip in our shoulder. We always feel like we can win a game. We’re a group of tough guys. You’re going to have to really beat us. We’re not going to lose many games [beating ourselves].”
While a large majority of scoring came from Warney and Puriefoy, the Seawolves’ point guard credited everyone else, saying, “Our teammates did a great job of getting us the ball in spots where we could score… we just had it going today.”
Countering how Vermont tried to stop Warney, and how he was able to get his big man the ball, Puriefoy said the key was, “Just picking and choosing different spots. They’re a great defensive team. We knew that coming in. They like to front [Warney]… he does a great job of getting open… he had a great game and we’re extremely thankful for that.”
The Seawolves’ success was a big departure from Vermont’s last visit to Stony Brook, when the Catamounts held Warney to 30 fewer points in a 76-62 win on Feb. 27. That defeat came in the Seawolves’ regular season finale. It was their only home loss of the season and their second loss in three games, immediately following an 18-game winning streak, which at the time, was the nation’s longest.
Pikiell said, “The best game that happened to us was [losing to] Vermont here. The world stopped around here and people couldn’t believe it.”
Asked if Stony Brook would have finally got by the America East final without the lessons learned from past losses in that game, nor without losing to Vermont this season, or if the Seawolves hadn’t secured the top seed and home court advantage on Saturday, Pikiell said, “I don’t think so, and the greatest game for us getting beat by [Vermont] on Senior Night. The film sessions were great [afterwards], our guys were locked into the game plan. We had already won the league [when we lost that game]. It didn’t mean anything but it really helped us win this final game [today].”
He added, “I’m not sure we would have won this game on the road… this is the greatest championship crowd since I’ve been [the head coach at Stony Brook]… the place was rocking and it was great.
“You’ve got to go through the journey to get the goal. I’m just proud of our guys that we had to go through that journey to get here — everyone doubting us, everyone bringing up the past. I said to our guys, ‘Embrace what you guys have done. We’re good enough to win this thing.’ And they went ahead and did it.”
Disappointed, yet gracious in defeat, Pikiell’s counterpart, head coach John Becker said, “It’s frustrating when you get this close to a goal… and you don’t finish it off.
“Congratulations to Stony Brook, congratulations to Coach Pikiell. They’re a great team, they’re a worthy champion and we’ll be rooting for them in the NCAA tournament. It was their turn today. Congratulations to them, especially that coaching staff that’s been there a long time… and I’m glad that they don’t have to deal with any of what they had [to deal with] the last [several] years.”
Reflecting on the historic moment for his program, Pikiell said it was, “An unbelievable environment today… the community, the students, the band, the dance team, the cheeleaders. I mean, everybody was awesome.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this group. We’ve got great kids. I’m happy for our university… for our students… I’m happy for my roster and all the sacrifices that [Warney and Puriefoy made]. It’s the best senior class I’ve ever coached… a very proud day for a great University.”
Looking ahead to Selection Sunday, Pikiell said, “We’ll be ready to play in the [NCAA] tournament. I think we’re pretty good and I think we’ll play real well. We’ll worry about that then, but it’s been an unbelievable journey to get here and I’m just really excited.”
When the long-awaited dream finally became real for the Seawolves, there was a mix of emotion and reveling in what was accomplished.
Speaking of everyone from Stony Brook fans, to alumni and others, Warney posed for a myriad of pictures with just about anyone who asked while wearing the freshly shorn net around his neck, and he was happy to do so.
“I just want to show my appreciation to [them] because they’ve shown appreciation to me,” he said. “If they want to take more pictures, I’ll take them.”
Of course, those memories wouldn’t have been captured without Warney stepping up as the Seawolves’ hero, even though he said the key to victory was to win as a team.
“We just knew we had to stick together,” he said. “No hero ball… and things will come to us.”
Meanwhile, Puriefoy remarked on family members crying with joy, including his father. “The last time I remember him crying was when I accepted the offer to come to Stony Brook,” he said. “All my family members were crying… sharing this moment with them… that was definitely one of the best moments of my life.”
And the same for the entire Stony Brook family, which at last, can finally stop answering questions about why the Seawolves had never gone dancing before.
With Warney leading them, that’s now a reality.
“I felt like I didn’t wanna lose, I didn’t wanna quit,” Warney said. “Just keep on going.”
Thanks to their relentless big man, the Seawolves finally can next week.