The game of college basketball is defined by how a team fights its toughest battles. Where baseball is decided by series and football is decided by fickle bowl selections, basketball is decided by key games. With the 64 team tournament, every team has their chance, but they all only get one. The best built and the most talented teams usually win the regular season and champions are decided by how they perform when they get their chance. When seasons come down to a single game, there are no surefire bets. Some believe that there is something special about a team, a “clutch gene,” that gives them ability to come through when moments are at their greatest. If that ability exists, Stony Brook showed it Friday night with a huge win over arguably their top America East rival in Vermont, prevailing 67-64 in a game that went down to the wire. To make the NCAA tournament, a team needs to be able to come through in big games, and this game might be a sign that this is Stony Brook’s year.
Vermont is a tough team, probably the toughest in the America East. Going into the game, the Catamounts were 11-7, and 5-0 in America East play. They had played the college powerhouse Duke at the Blue Devils’ homecourt and took them to the edge, losing by only two points. Lead by star forward Brian Voelkel and a stingy defense that had not given up more than 50 points to an American East team this year, Vermont posed the greatest threat Stony Brook had seen all season.
The Seawolves got off to a fast start. Their first half was a dominant performance, perhaps the best half they had played all season. Within eight minutes, Stony Brook had jumped out to a nine point lead lead by early dominance by Jameel Warney and Anthony Jackson. The period was marked by dominance by the Seawolves at both ends of the floor. Only five Catamounts managed to score a point in the half, as they were held to 38.5 percent shooting. Meanwhile, the Seawolves were able to spread the ball around quite well, as eight of the nine players who hit the floor in the half scored as they shot 55 percent with 42.9 percent three point shooting and perfect free throws. The Seawolves domination lasted through the half as they hit the locker room with a 44-28 lead. Warney lead the charge with 10 points and five rebounds on 4-6 shooting. Carson Puriefoy and Anthony Jackson both contributed eight points while Ahmad Walker lead the team with eight rebounds.
However, you can’t expect a game against your toughest rival to be an easy win, and it seemed likely that Vermont would make a run, and they definitely did. About five minutes into the second half, Vermont started to close the gap as they started to shut down the Stony Brook offense. The Catamounts played with more physicality and energy, and were lead by an offensive explosion by forward Ethan O’Day. For a six minute period, Vermont scored 13 unanswered points, 10 of which came from O’Day as the lead was closed to 46-50. Anthony Jackson helped widen the lead with two big three-point shots, but Vermont was able to close the gap with three pointers and more interior dominance from O’Day. With three minutes left in the game, Vermont’s Kurt Steidl hit a huge three pointer and closed the deficit to 65-62, and it was obvious that if Seawolves were to get the key win, they would have to close out the game in crunch time and take the momentum back from Vermont. With the shot clock winding down, Jackson hit a difficult jump shot, but was quickly answered by a Hector Harold jump shot off a Voelkel assist to make the score 67-64 with 2:30 left to play. Dave Coley missed the next jumper, giving the Catamounts an opportunity to tie the game. It was then that Warney took over the game, blocking the Catamounts shot and gathering up the rebound. Puriefoy could not hit his shot to make the game a two possession contest, and Vermont got another chance to tie. Warney wasn’t having any of that. He blocked Vermonts shot again, and the Catamounts missed their second chance shot, giving Stony Brook the ball with a minute left. The Seawolves offense stagnated though, as an attempt at a play broke down, and Anthony Jackson held onto the ball until having to take a long contested two with the shot clock winding down. The game clock stood at 34 seconds as Vermont took the ball up. They swung the ball around to Hector Harold, who took a contested three, which missed its mark and Warney pawed the rebound, sent to the line with a chance to ice the game with a one and one free throw opportunity. However, the shot missed and Vermont got another chance. This time, Sandro Carrisimo took the three, which missed again thanks to the tough Stony Brook defense, and Walker was sent to the line with the one and one chance. He could not ice it either. With four seconds left, Vermont had possession with a chance at a prayer of a three. Their first inbound attempt was tipped out by Coley, moving Vermont up the court for a second shot with two seconds left. They inbounded the ball, but the deep three missed and was later determined to not have beaten the buzzer. Stony Brook had prevailed.
Jackson was awarded America East player of the game, due to his clutch three point shots and his 16 points on 6-9 shooting. He seemed to adjust well to the new role as a sixth man-starter coming off the bench as instant offense. His style of play seemed to fit that role well, him being a ball dominant scorer. However, the real dominant performance came from Warney. He scored 18 points on 7-11 shooting, with nine rebounds, an assist and three huge blocks. Walker also had one of his best games of the year, with six points, nine rebounds and three assists.
“It was a great environment tonight and I’m real happy to get a win. That’s a great team, a veteran, a passing team with five fifth year seniors…now we have 24 hours to prepare for the next game,” coach Pikiell said after the game.
So in the end, Stony Brook prevailed despite the late push by the Catamounts. They showed their ability to step up in big games, that when they have their one chance, that they can seize the opportunity. But, they also showed another important quality: resilience. In basketball, you may get one chance to win the big game. However, the game is full of second, third, fourth chances. Missing the shot to close the game does not mean that you roll over in defeat. You just have to hustle back on defense and get that second chance. It takes a talented team to get the first chance. It may take a “clutch gene” to convert that first chance. Yet its effort, hustle, grit and determination that pulls you through when things don’t break your way, and that is the measure of a team that can win when the stakes are at their highest.