Stony Brook Men’s Basketball sophomore forward Elijah Olaniyi deservedly gleamed as he entered the postgame press conference, coming off an 86-77 victory over Hartford on Saturday, Feb. 2.
Olaniyi followed up three consecutive lackluster single-digit performances by catching the hot hand early and piercing through Hartford’s defense. However, the offensive catalyst felt hungrier for more even after earning a career-high 28 points
“Man, I wish I had hit 30,” Olaniyi said as he read the stat sheet.
Olaniyi’s commanding performance was the boost Stony Brook needed after dropping two straight games, against Vermont and UMBC, for the first time this season. A third loss would have knocked the Seawolves to fourth place in the America East standings midway through the season. The Seawolves entered Saturday night facing a challenging rapid-fire Hawks team which knocked down a program-record 19 shots from three in their prior game against Binghamton.
“We had two rough ones against UMBC and Vermont,” redshirt-sophomore forward Andrew Garcia said. “We haven’t lost a lot of games [this season] so losing those really woke us up to a little bit of adversary. We knew we had to come into this game ready to play and come in with positive vibes- we were hungry.”
Olaniyi jumpstarted the Seawolves offensively by earning the first seven points just three minutes into the first half. As Hartford tried battling back, Stony Brook continued turning to the guard as he torched the rival defense inside. When he was double-teamed, Olaniyi countered by splashing back-to-back shots from well behind three, roaring to the thundering sea of Stony Brook fans as he put them up 24-14, 12 minutes through the first.
“I talked to [senior guard Jaron Cornish, redshirt-junior guard Akwasi Yeboah and Olaniyi] after the losses and said ‘When you are facing adversity, you gotta work harder,’” head coach Jeff Boals said. “You can tell Elijah has worked hard on his game. He had a couple of heat checks there in the first half and I pulled him over and said ‘Hey, do you think you are Dwyane Wade in your prime?’ He was phenomenal.”
Stony Brook excelled defensively in the first half by holding Hartford below 28 percent shooting. The Hawks were far from replicating their impressive shooting on Wednesday and were held to 21 percent from three in the half. Meanwhile, Stony Brook shot over 50 percent in the half and took a 41-28 lead entering halftime.
“Going in, we knew 50 percent of the shots and 50 percents of the points came from three,” Boals said. “I thought [sophomore center Jeff] Otchere did a good job of clogging the lane, getting boards and altering shots. We were able to stay at home a little more and contest them.”
While Hartford struggled from the field in the first, it started the second half 4-5 and cut the deficit to single digits off a layup by senior forward George Blagojevic. In response, Otchere, Garcia, Cornish and Olaniyi dominated inside and gained a 23-point lead midway through the second half.
Despite falling well behind, the Hawks remained resilient and capitalized off the Seawolves’ lackadaisical defensive showing late in the half. Blagojevic cut the deficit to 10 coming off the media timeout before senior guard J.R. Lynch dropped in layups, making Stony Brook’s lead 74-68 with two and a half minutes remaining. However, Yeboah and Olaniyi held off the comeback with free throws and iced the game.
“That segment right there showed off our immaturity as a team,” Olaniyi said. “We called a timeout and coach tried to settle us down. We know how to win games but we just have a problem of closing them out.”
Stony Brook’s 86 points is the most scored this season and the highest since the 86-75 on Jan. 16, 2017. Both Yeboah and Garcia finished with a double-double, earning 16 points and 14 rebounds and 13 points and 11 rebounds, respectively. Hartford senior guard Jason Dunne led the Hawks with 19 points.
The Seawolves improve to 18-5 overall and 6-2 in the America East, good enough for second place alongside UMBC. Their next game will be on Wednesday, Feb. 6 against Binghamton, a team which leads the conference with 117 overall blocks.
“I think the biggest thing is the same type of mindset,” Boals said. “We always talk about ‘mind right, game right’ and I thought our guys came in with a great focus. You have got to learn from the negatives and work harder so that will be the biggest thing.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.