Ray McGrew
Senior forward Rayshaun McGrew (No. 11, above) scored 10 points and grabbed 7 rebounds as Stony Brook overtook Hartford, 80-64, in the America East semifinals. Stony Brook will host Vermont on Saturday, March 12, at 11 a.m. in the America East Championship game. ERIC SCHMID/THE STATESMAN

Junior guard Pancake Thomas sped down the court off a Hartford steal with Stony Brook junior guard Ahmad Walker in close pursuit. Thomas wound back for a tomahawk slam dunk as Walker leapt in his path to swat it away, putting emphasis on a standout defensive performance. The Barton Community College transfer forced the Hawks’ leading scorer to miss seven of his first 12 shots in an 80-64 Seawolves semifinals win, setting the stage for the America East Championship.

“He plays with great energy, he’s got great length,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “We can do a lot of change-ups with him, it depends on the match-ups. He’s always up for the task.”

Shortly after Walker’s highlight, No. 1 Stony Brook used a 16-6 run to turn a five-point lead early in the second half into a 15-point advantage near the midway point of the second half. No. 7 Hartford failed to put a dent in the deficit from there, as senior guard Carson Puriefoy scored 22 points and senior forward Jameel Warney finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds.

“Made some shots and we strung together some stops,” Pikiell said. “I really thought we got the ball up the floor.”

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Hartford shot just 39.3 percent from the field in the second half. As a team, Stony Brook shot 8-for-20 on 3-pointers, thanks in part to two apiece from junior guards Lucas Woodhouse and Kameron Mitchell. But the biggest shooting performance came from the free-throw line, where the Seawolves rebounded from a 27-for-50 clunker against UMBC to shoot 16-for-22 on Monday night. Warney went 7-for-10 from the line, his first game of the season with at least 70 percent shooting on 10 or more attempts this season.

“Just shoot a lot of free throws in practice,” Warney said when asked how the team improved. “Shoot while you’re tired. Do a drill that’s really tiring then shoot after that. Shoot one and one’s, shoot two shots.”

With Thomas struggling, junior guard Jalen Ross picked up the slack for Hartford, leading the way with 21 points. Thomas finished with 18, and junior guard Evan Cooper added 10 for the Hawks, all coming in the first half.

Hartford played Stony Brook close in the opening 20 minutes, never falling behind by more than eight in the period. The Hawks’ 2-3 zone held the Seawolves to 34.4 percent shooting from the field, and Warney attempted just five shots in the first half. Puriefoy shot just 1-for-6, before turning his offense around in the second half. Senior forward Rayshaun McGrew and Woodhouse were two bright spots, finding holes in the defense for eight points each to lead Pikiell’s squad.

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On the other end, the Seawolves could not stop Cooper, who shot 4-for-4 from the field. Ross scored 10 of his own, but the Hawks failed to get Thomas involved with Walker checking him. He scored just seven first-half points and shot 1-for-4 on 3-pointers.

Although Hartford never fell far behind, Stony Brook was in control from the tip. The Hawks never led beyond the game’s opening minute, and the Seawolves went into the break ahead by five.

Stony Brook now looks toward accomplishing what the team set out to four months ago, winning the America East title. The Seawolves will host the No. 3 Vermont Catamounts at Island Federal Credit Union Arena on Saturday, March 12 at 11 a.m.

Vermont, which defeated Stony Brook in the teams’ most recent matchup, defeated No. 4 New Hampshire, 63-56, in its semifinal matchup on Monday night. Senior forward Ethan O’Day scored 19 points to lead the Catamounts in the win.

“I’m excited,” McGrew said. “It’s one more game I get to play and share with these guys, and it’s also another chance to compete for something we’ve always wanted.”

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