In spite of the Senior Night festivities at Stony Brook, it was Vermont freshman guard Ernie Duncan that stole the show with 23 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the field to lead his team to a 76-62 upset victory.
The Seawolves fell behind by 17 in the first half and spent the rest of the night trying to crawl back, but the team could not overcome its own poor showing at the free-throw line, combined with the Catamounts’ fiery 3-point shooting.
“You have to make some shots, that’s the bottom line,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “If they don’t go in against a good team, you’re not going to win. That certainly was the case tonight.”
Stony Brook shot 7-for-19 from the free throw line while Vermont connected on 10 of its 19 3-point attempts. Sophomore guard Trae Bell-Haynes scored 16 points for the Catamounts, 11 of which came in the second half.
The Seawolves cut the lead to six with 5:29 remaining only to get run off their home court at the hands of a 12-0 Catamounts run late in the second half.
For Stony Brook, which had already clinched the America East Tournament No. 1 seed, the loss was just its second of the conference season and its first home loss overall. Vermont clinched the No. 3 seed in the playoffs with its win.
Vermont won the rebounding battle 37-31, the sixth time a team has out-rebounded Stony Brook this season. The Catamounts regularly sent four players to the defensive glass, which helped limit senior forward Jameel Warney to just three first-half rebounds.
“It’s always tougher to play a team the second time around,” Warney said. “We went up there and out-rebounded them and we were tougher than them in that spot, so you know that was a point of emphasis for them… We knew they were going to come in and be more tough, be more aggressive, and that’s what they did today.”
Leading the way for Stony Brook was senior forward Rayshaun McGrew, who scored 17 points on 8-for-13 shooting. Warney and senior guard Carson Puriefoy both shot under 50 percent from the field and did not receive much help. Junior guards Lucas Woodhouse and Ahmad Walker combined for just six points, and the Seawolves bench scored just 10.
“We didn’t make shots tonight,” Puriefoy said. “We have to keep feeding it into the big guys, we kind of got away from that. But we have to make shots against the zone, and we have to get it inside and kick it out. We just have to go back to practice, keep working and we’ll be fine.”
Vermont dealt a body blow in the first half, using a 15-2 run to take a 17-point lead. Warney struggled to make his presence felt against the physicality of Vermont’s frontcourt, putting up a just six points. McGrew kept Stony Brook alive, as the forward went on a personal 7-0 run midway through the period. He led his team in scoring at the half with nine points on 4-for-6 shooting from the field.
For Vermont, the 3-pointer was unstoppable, as the Catamounts 6-for-12 from beyond the arc in the opening 20 minutes. Duncan’s play was particularly impressive, as the freshman made all three of his 3-pointers en route to 16 points at halftime.
Stony Brook went on a late 10-0 run to keep the game within striking distance. Pikiell ran a lineup with three point guards — Puriefoy, Woodhouse and sophomore guard Deshaun Thrower — to get more dribble penetration and passing, which helped spark the Seawolves. He stayed with similar lineups in the second half, but it was not enough.
The Seawolves now set their sights on winning the America East Championship, the road to which starts and ends on Long Island. Stony Brook will not only have home court advantage against No. 8 UMBC in its quarterfinals match-up on Wednesday, but will also play at home in potential semifinals and finals games.
In their lone trip to Island Federal Credit Union Arena this season, the Retrievers put up a fight in a 12-point loss to the Seawolves. UMBC was within three points with nine minutes to go before Stony Brook blew the lead open. Sophomore guard Jairus Lyles is the guy the Seawolves will have to focus on. The Robert Morris transfer is averaging a conference-best 22.8 points per game on the season.
“They have guys who can score at every position,” Warney said. “We have to come ready to play on both sides and at the end of the day find a way to win.”
With a quarterfinals win, Stony Brook would play the lowest seed to advance on Monday, March 7. If all favorites win their first round games, Pikiell’s squad would host New Hampshire in the semifinals. The Seawolves won a nail-biter against the Wildcats 59-58 on Feb. 14.
Stony Brook will be spared from having to face off against Vermont or Albany — the two teams that beat the Seawolves in conference this season — until the America East championship game on Friday, March 11.
The Seawolves will be without sophomore guard Bryan Sekunda for the playoffs. Sekunda, a 3-point specialist for Stony Brook, suffered a serious knee injury in a loss at Albany last week.
“Now the real season’s happening,” Warney said. “We have to find a way to win three games, up by 20 or up by one.”