Survive and advance.
That was the mantra for Stony Brook men’s basketball on Wednesday night when the third-seeded Seawolves walked off the court at Island FCU Arena after squeaking out a 62-57 win over sixth-seeded Binghamton in the quarterfinals of the America East Playoffs. The victory was just that: a survival.
Despite taking multiple double-digit leads in the second half, Stony Brook had a hard time sealing the game. The Bearcats were able to keep it close, and for a moment there, one could hear the collective thought of a home crowd of 3,289 that’s seen countless March letdowns by the Seawolves thinking, “Not again.”
That moment came with 28 seconds left and Binghamton down 58-55. Willie Rodriguez drove down the lane and kicked the ball out to the left wing where a wide-open Justin McFadden was waiting. The freshman let the ball fly, the crowd held its breath, and the ball was halfway down before popping back out.
“It was a little frightening,” Stony Brook point guard Carson Puriefoy admitted afterwards. “But we’re a veteran team. If he had made that shot, we would come down and get a good [shot] up. There isn’t a situation we haven’t been in this season. Just because they make shots doesn’t mean we can’t come back and make our move so I was confident in our guys.”
The Seawolves (22-10) advance to the semifinals on Sunday for a showdown at Patrick Gym against second-seeded Vermont (18-12), which downed UMBC, 66-39, in the quarterfinals. Top-seeded Albany (22-8) will host No. 4 New Hampshire (19-11) in the other semifinal.
“Coach Pikiell’s motto is, ’40 gets you 40,’ so it’s all about survive and advance,” Stony Brook center Jameel Warney said.
Despite dispatching Binghamton (6-26) in two regular-season meetings, Stony Brook knew this would not be an easy game.
“You’re playing a dangerous team, they have talented young players, credit to coach (Tommy) Dempsey because at the end of the year the more tape I watched on them I saw they weren’t playing like a team that’s lost a lot of games, they were playing like a good basketball team,” Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell said. “I told our guys this will be the hardest 40 minutes they’ll play, and it always is in the first round of the tournament when no one wants to put their uniforms away.”
The Bearcats gave the Seawolves everything they could handle, from a stifling 2-3 zone to All-Rookie selection Rodriguez’s strong low-post presence. Binghamton took a two-point lead into halftime and held Stony Brook to 30.8 percent shooting in the first half, including a stretch of shooting 0-for-12.
“Offense is the most inconsistent part of the game, we know that,” Puriefoy said. “Our coaches tell us all the time, in the playoffs we need to rely on our defense. We know we’re a great defensive team and we can rely on that when our shots aren’t falling. We kept it close so we can make a run in the second half.”
Stony Brook, which prides itself on dominating the glass, was even outrebounded 19-16 thanks in large part to Rayshaun McGrew being held to six minutes in the first half due to foul trouble.
“It was frustrating, but I didn’t want to show my emotions during the game,” McGrew said. “I didn’t want to bring the team energy down so I just cheered them on while I was on the bench and tried to pick them up when things were going bad while I wasn’t out there.”
The Seawolves woke up early in the second half, taking their largest lead of the game at 41-30 thanks to a 14-0 run. Scott King (six points) played some big minutes off the bench and the crowd erupted when he drained a transition three and later threw down an alley-oop slam.
Puriefoy finished with 14 points and five assists and McGrew had 14 points and eight rebounds. Warney, who was named America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year on Monday, had 11 points and 14 rebounds for his nation-leading 21st double-double to go along with three assists, two steals and a block.
For Binghamton, Rodriguez put up a game-high 19 points and added six rebounds. Romello Walker chipped in 10 points and eight boards.
One thing is for certain, though: the Seawolves can’t expect to shoot 31 percent in a half and be let off the hook against a team like Vermont. Maybe it was a good thing for the Seawolves that the first-round game was such a dogfight, it was a slap in the face to let them know they’re playing playoff basketball. But at this point, a win’s a win; no matter how ugly it is or how it gets done, it’s all about doing what needs to be done to get that “W.”
Stony Brook has now won seven straight games and will take that confidence into Burlington when they face the Catamounts, who swept the regular-season series, including a 17-point comeback win on Stony Brook’s home floor on Feb. 7.
“We can play with any team in this league,” Pikiell said. “Nothing is ever easy here for us, so we’ll go on the road to a tough place and we’ll be ready to play.”