Among all the smiles in Island Federal Credit Union Arena on Selection Sunday, senior forward Rayshaun McGrew’s was the brightest.
The excitement on McGrew’s face as the America East Championship trophy sat on the hardwood just in front of his feet was telling. Finding out that the Stony Brook Men’s Basketball team would play eight-time national champion Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament was the culmination of a long journey for the Chicago native.
Although he might not project his feelings to fans, opponents, coaches or even teammates, this season has been a tough one for McGrew.
Stony Brook was getting ready to take the court for shootaround before playing Princeton on Dec. 5 when McGrew’s sister called to tell him that his mother, Ineater, passed away from the effects of cancer.
Head coach Steve Pikiell said he had no problem if McGrew wanted to hop on the next plane to Chicago to be with his family. But instead, McGrew channeled his emotions onto the court, scoring 18 points and grabbing seven rebounds in a 91-77 victory against a team that Stony Brook lost to by 13 points last season.
“The day that he heard, he was crying in the locker room and we all banded together, so we had his back,” senior guard Carson Puriefoy said. “He came out and had one of the best games of his life.”
McGrew’s teammates told him to take whatever time he needed to be with his family. He attended his mother’s funeral but did not miss a game.
McGrew said Ineater would not have wanted him to do so. Earlier on in the season, the 23-year-old went home to spend time with her, missing Stony Brook’s season-opener against the United States Merchant Marine Academy. He thinks of what she told him during that visit before every game.
“A couple words she told me before I left was to ‘Continue to do what I love and do it with all my heart’,” McGrew said. “That’s what made me keep playing.”
While senior forward Jameel Warney was by his side earning his third consecutive America East Player of the Year title, McGrew played well himself. He scored 13.1 points per game and grabbed 7.1 rebounds during conference play, putting him in the top 15 in the America East during the span in each category.
To the forward, his performance was just about doing what his mother wanted.
“I wanted to be back with my team and help them win,” McGrew said. “My mom wanted to be here. She didn’t want me sitting around sobbing.”
Sophomore guard Deshaun Thrower said McGrew is like his older brother. When he heard the news about his teammate’s mother, he tried to keep the senior’s mind off losing her.
“He’s taking it better than what I expected. But he’s a strong person too at the same time,” Thrower said. “He doesn’t like to let people see when he’s hurting. So I’m sure he’s hurting when he’s by himself and he was grieving then but when he’s around us he tries his best not to show it.”
After Stony Brook beat Vermont on Saturday, McGrew said that he was in shock for hours after the game — the victory was not processing.
When he woke up on Sunday morning, it all sank in. His dream — and Ineater’s dream — of Stony Brook making the NCAA Tournament was finally a reality.
“I just think about how much she sacrificed for me,” McGrew said. “I don’t want to take nothing for granted that I’ve got going on right now, so I cherish every moment that I’m able to live out my dream, and I just want to thank her for it.”
McGrew has not been alone in trying to do whatever he can to fulfill his mother’s wishes. Puriefoy said that it is even difficult for him and the team to talk about what happened to what is virtually a family member for the team, but that they will do whatever it takes to support McGrew.
“He’ll tell me from time to time that he misses his mom. I can’t even imagine what he feels but you know we always got his back,” Puriefoy said. “We dedicated this season to Ray and his mother.”
McGrew started his collegiate basketball career at Cowley County Community College in Kansas, where he averaged fewer than seven points and five rebounds per game. He then transferred to Stony Brook, where McGrew went from averaging fewer than 10 minutes a contest during his sophomore season to being named to the All-America East Second Team and All-Defensive team just two years later.
“On a funny level, I laugh that he made the all-defensive team,” Cowley County Community College head coach Tommy DeSalme said. “I always used to tell him here that he couldn’t guard my mother.”
At a community college with just over 4,000 students nearly 1,500 miles away, McGrew was fighting to make his dreams come true. After Ineater’s death, during what must have been the most difficult moment in McGrew’s life, DeSalme said that he never doubted that McGrew would handle the situation well.
“I could have guaranteed it,” he said. “The safest bet there was.”
So it was only fitting that he was the first to climb the ladder to cut down a piece of the net after Stony Brook beat the Vermont Catamounts on Saturday.
As the thousands in attendance roared while McGrew held his piece of nylon in the air, he smiled and nodded his head up and down — mission accomplished.
“I said ‘Your mother is so proud of you right now,’” Director of Athletics Shawn Heilbron said he told McGrew after the America East Championship. “And she is. She raised a special young man in Ray.”