The Stony Brook men’s basketball team played against UMass Lowell on Dec. 27 and 28. The Seawolves defeated the River Hawks in both games. ETHAN TAM/THE STATESMAN

After the way the non-conference season played out, the thought of the Stony Brook men’s basketball team holding sole possession of first place in the America East after four games was not predicted by many. Sweeping the UMass Lowell River Hawks at Island Federal Arena on Dec. 27 and 28 made that a reality as the Seawolves suddenly find themselves riding the momentum of a five-game win streak and a 6-4 (4-0 AE) record.

“Obviously, we had doubters,” senior forward Mouhamadou Gueye said on Monday in a postgame press conference. “That’s to be expected … it’s easy to go off paper and just make the assumption that we won’t finish that well in the conference.”

Stony Brook dominated UMass Lowell in Sunday’s series opener, notching the 73-58 win to begin America East play at 3-0. The River Hawks, who earned a shocking upset over unanimous conference favorites Vermont on Monday, Dec. 21, were thoroughly outplayed with senior guard Obadiah Noel scoring 30 points to account for over half of the team’s offense.

“We are infinitely better offensively today than we were on opening night,” head coach Geno Ford said in a postgame press conference. “The turnovers are down, guys [are] having a little better idea of what we’re trying to accomplish on offense. Those are all keys for us moving forward because we can’t stall out. We’ve got to keep getting better on the offensive end.”

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The Seawolves controlled Sunday’s matchup from the opening tip, grabbing the first basket and never relinquishing the lead. Redshirt-sophomore forward Frankie Policelli, left unguarded from downtown on multiple occasions, showcased his deep shooting skills with a pair of triples that put Stony Brook up 24-10 midway through the first half. 

“They were able to find me in open spots and I was able to knock them down,” Policelli said in a postgame interview. “That’s just how our team is — always find the open guy.”

Junior guard Juan Felix Rodriguez helped the Seawolves enter the break with a bang, sinking a catch-and-shoot buzzer-beating corner bucket off an inbound pass — originally ruled a three-pointer before being overturned — to give his team a 43-29 advantage at the intermission. A 58% shooting performance in the first half, including seven threes, allowed Stony Brook to score the most points in a half this season against a Division I opponent.

“I had plenty of time to get the shot off and the defender wasn’t that close to me, so I didn’t hesitate,” Rodriguez said in a postgame press conference. “I knew it was two seconds to shoot my shot, and I just took it.”

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A series of ten unanswered second-half points for the Seawolves extended their lead to 19 with 10:29 remaining in the game, and a Rodriguez dime to senior forward Jaden Sayles under the bucket gave Stony Brook a 21-point advantage with 6:22 to go, the largest of the afternoon.

Policelli led all Seawolves with 16 points, while Rodriguez chipped in by scoring 13 and dishing the ball for a career-high seven assists. Five bench players stayed on the court for at least 10 minutes, which Ford attributed to how well they played together along with the need to keep his starters rested for the back-to-back games.

“The [UMass Lowell] team that’s coming in tomorrow is going to be a way different team,” Policelli said. “They’re going to be hungrier, they’re going to be more physical … I look forward to playing against teams like this because I use it as a measuring stick for how good we are.”

Policelli’s prediction proved right. As with last weekend’s series at Binghamton, the second game was decidedly closer than the first. Facing a tie game with five minutes remaining, Stony Brook needed key transition buckets to seize a 71-64 victory on Monday and hold off a UMass Lowell team that refused to go down easily.

“What won us the game was offensive rebounding [and] hustle plays in the last six minutes of the game,” Ford said. “I’m encouraged by the fact that we were able to beat [UMass Lowell] on a day where I thought they were excellent.”

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Knotted up at 56 apiece, senior forward Omar Habwe sunk a three to put Stony Brook on top for good, a play only made possible by Gueye grabbing the offensive board off a missed layup. On the next possession, senior guard Jordan McKenzie came up with the steal, and Policelli fed it to Gueye for the dunk.

Noel missed a three that would have brought it back to one possession. While Rodriguez missed his layup attempt in transition, Gueye was right there to clean up, getting the basket himself to extend the Seawolves’ lead to 63-56. Eight of his nine points on Monday came in the final six minutes of the game.

“When you already know you got the win [in the first game], especially a big one like that, sometimes you can get complacent,” Gueye said. “That clearly showed in the first half and we had to really ramp it up the second half to finish it off.”

It was a back-and-forth affair for much of the first half. Although the Seawolves took a five-point lead less than four minutes into the game, the River Hawks refused to let Stony Brook blow the game open as they did on Sunday. The two teams traded leads for much of the first period, with neither team finding consistent outside shooting. Stony Brook entered the break up 32-30 in a physical contest with nine fouls called on each side.

McKenzie played a season-high 22 minutes off the bench on Monday and scored nine points, his best offensive output in over two years and tied for his second-most points scored versus a Division I opponent.

“I’ve been here for a long time,” McKenzie said. “What I do usually is just take care of the ball — that’s my thing. I don’t turn the ball over. So being in there, and just doing the best I can on defense, trying to rebound and taking care of it, is what we needed there at the end of the close game.”

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Stony Brook, originally set to host the UMBC Retrievers (7-2, 3-1 AE) in a weekend series at Island Federal Arena on Saturday, Jan. 2 and Sunday, Jan. 3, has paused all activities after a positive COVID-19 test within the program.

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