For a brief moment, it looked as if the Seawolves had escaped. Eleven unanswered points had the Stony Brook men’s basketball team up by three with six minutes to go, and all the momentum was squarely on their side after they had been left for dead just moments earlier.
The 14-point deficit that existed in the first half had been fully erased. A trip to the America East Championship — the team’s first since 2016 — was straight ahead. Instead, the same old demons that haunted the Seawolves all year dealt one final blow as No. 2-seeded Stony Brook (20-13) watched its season end in heartbreaking fashion with a 64-58 loss to the No. 3-seeded Hartford Hawks (18-15) on Tuesday, March 10, at Island Federal Arena in the America East semifinals.
“Tough, tough ending to a really good year,” head coach Geno Ford said in a postgame press conference. “[It’s] disappointing to lose at home, disappointing to lose in the semis — a close game. I’ve got to give [Hartford] credit … They made a ton of threes, and we made none. That’s a significant factor in a game [where] everything else is pretty equal.”
The disparity in 3-point shooting success ended up being the difference. Hartford went 12-for-22 (55%) from beyond the arc while Stony Brook went 3-for-17 (18%). The Hawks won the game with two clutch threes from sophomore forward Hunter Marks: playing with four fouls, the first spun the lead back into Hartford’s favor with 2:32 left, and the second iced the game by giving the Hawks a 6-point advantage with 49 seconds remaining.
“Coach [John] Gallagher’s got a lot of belief in me,” Marks said in a postgame press conference. “I’m really glad that he kept me in there.”
For Stony Brook, the inability to finish in the lane meant that the Seawolves’ lead never grew larger than three points. When Marks’ bucket put the Hawks up 54-52, junior guard Elijah Olaniyi and redshirt-junior guard Makale Foreman each missed a layup in the paint that would have tied the contest.
“Two-point field goal shooting was an issue for us all year,” Ford said. “We talked about it a lot. We were about 317th in the country, and we got it right to the rim three times and couldn’t finish inside of three minutes.”
Olaniyi led all players with 19 points, while Marks led his team with 17. The dynamic junior — whose head coach admitted was playing at less than full strength — saw his ankle swell back up on Sunday following the quarterfinal victory and still shone without his trademark explosiveness.
“We had a lot of energy coming into the game,” junior forward Mouhamadou Gueye said in a postgame press conference. “I feel like we were really rolling and we should have took [the win], to be honest. We just slipped up.”
The situation was dire early for the Seawolves, who missed all nine of their 3-pointer attempts in the first half while the Hawks connected on half of their 14 tries. Hartford’s seventh put them up 27-13 leading Ford to immediately call a timeout. The Hawks entered the break ahead by 12 after both teams were held scoreless for nearly the final two minutes of the frame.
Hartford was able to extend the lead back to 13 before Stony Brook made a furious comeback. Two separate 11-0 runs — with a 6-0 stretch for Hartford sandwiched in between — put the Seawolves in the driver’s seat. Momentum swung when Stony Brook, down 10, took full advantage of a technical foul on Hawks head coach John Gallagher, with Foreman hitting both free throws and Olaniyi converting a layup on the free possession. The second 11-0 run ended with Olaniyi grabbing a steal and sinking a three to go up 50-47.
Stony Brook has now gone four years without an America East title. The Seawolves have not even advanced past the semifinals, twice falling at home to the No. 3 seed after doing the same against Albany in 2017.
“I don’t want our guys to feel like it wasn’t a successful year at all, because if our year wasn’t successful, then I guess everyone in the country is going to be upset except one team in each league,” Ford said. “They’ve got a lot to be proud of. It’s the nicest best group of kids I’ve ever been around. They really like each other.”
Still, the leader of the Seawolves admits that his squad was flawed, and it ended up costing them in March.
“We were not great at making each other better,” Ford said. “Some of that was passing and ball-handling stuff that maybe we can improve. There’s some roster management stuff we can do to help us get more dialed in. But we’re really close. I love our group. I wanted to get in the championship game with a young team because I thought it would really give us a shot in the arm for next year. We’re gonna have to use the sting of a disappointing home loss to do that, but they’ll be anxious to get back to work when it’s time.”
Stony Brook has won 20 games this season and would probably be a candidate to participate in a postseason tournament such as the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) or the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT). However, travel concerns regarding the COVID-19 virus could kill the possibility of the Seawolves participating, especially as the CBI was canceled on Wednesday, March 11.
“There’s going to be a lot of indecision with what’s going on,” Ford said. “So I’ll meet with [athletic director Shawn Heilbron] and we’ll figure it out, but I would say probably leaning no.”