Still looking to regain their pre-break momentum, the Stony Brook men’s basketball team snapped a 3-game losing streak in the latter half of a road weekend series with the NJIT Highlanders in Newark on Jan. 23 and 24.
The Seawolves ended the split 7-6 (5-3 AE) with the third-best conference winning percentage and one loss behind UMBC, the team in first place.
“We did a better job pressuring the ball today,” head coach Geno Ford said in a postgame press conference after Sunday’s victory. “I thought yesterday they were really comfortable and just kind of moved it where they wanted to. Today we disrupted their timing, we got some deflections.”
The Seawolves had to claw their way back from a 14-point hole in Saturday’s matchup and could not complete a comeback, despite pulling within one possession in the second half, ultimately falling 74-65 in their third consecutive defeat.
“We’re going to have to figure it out, or we’re going to have to look at some lineup changes,” Ford admitted after the loss. “You can’t win games if you can’t get stops, and we just can’t seem to get them these last three ballgames.”
Senior forward Jaden Sayles had himself a career game, leading all players with 32 points on 14-for-21 shooting. It was the first time that a Stony Brook player had broken the 30-point barrier since Elijah Olaniyi put up 33 against UMass Lowell last season. Sayles scored Stony Brook’s first six points and had 18 at the half.
“I don’t really feel like anybody else had a good offensive game,” Ford said. “We continue to have some defensive challenges. It’s personnel-related, and we’re trying to figure it out. We’re going to have to come up with some better ideas, because what we’re trying right now — it’s not working.”
NJIT seized control of the game with 14 unanswered points to turn a 10-all tie into a wide 24-10 advantage, a stretch where the Seawolves missed seven straight shots and turned the ball over three times. Sayles willed the team back to a single-digit deficit at halftime at 37-29, but the Highlanders’ offense was rarely quiet.
A corner three from junior guard Juan Felix Rodriguez made it a one-possession game, 52-49, with 12:11 remaining in the game. It was the closest that Stony Brook got. NJIT was led by senior guard Zach Cooks’ 25 points, many of which halted the Seawolves’ momentum at whittling away their lead.
“We couldn’t get anything going offensively, and we had a couple possessions defensively when we got it down there where we couldn’t get that extra stop to get us over the hump,” Ford said about his team’s inability to finish the comeback. “They went from three to seven or eight in a hurry.”
Outside shooting was ghastly for Stony Brook on Saturday, which made just three of its 20 attempts from beyond the arc. The Seawolves’ head coach noted that it was the deciding factor in a game where his team gave up only six offensive boards and committed just 11 turnovers.
Redshirt-sophomore forward Frankie Policelli, the team’s most lethal shooter, was held to just two points on 1-for-9 shooting, going 0-for-5 from deep. The Dayton transfer was mired in a 2-for-18 3-ball slump over his last four games.
NJIT’s bench also dominated Stony Brook’s 31-7 in scoring. Although Ford believed his depth players are capable of playing better than their results, he remained displeased with their numerous breakdowns on defense.
A low-scoring first half gave way to a gritty 56-44 victory on Sunday, as the Seawolves split the series with a dominant performance on the glass. Senior forward Mouhamadou Gueye grabbed a career-high 14 boards as Stony Brook held a +22 advantage as a team, out-rebounding NJIT 20-7 offensively.
“In this weekend, where we kind of struggled offensively, each time we could get an extra rebound, especially offensive rebounds, is another possession for us,” Gueye said in a press conference on Sunday. “When it came to those long rebounds, I thought I was capable of getting there when it came to a foot race with my athleticism.”
The opportunities to grab second-chance points were crucial for the Seawolves, especially as the Highlanders began to heat up from downtown and jump in front for a brief moment, despite Stony Brook leading for the vast majority of the game.
Scoring was hard to come by for both teams in the first half. Stony Brook led 21-13 at the break after holding NJIT to 14% (4-for-27) shooting yet only shooting 24% (7-for-29) themselves. Both teams combined to convert 6% (1-for-18) of their attempts from beyond the arc.
“What happens when you make zero shots, the other team stops guarding you on the weak side and they just pack the lane,” Ford said. “We’ve got to make more shots so we can get some space.”
The Highlanders’ outside game would not remain dormant for long. Junior guard Dylan O’Hearn led the way as NJIT made five of its first seven second-half 3-pointers to seize a 36-35 lead with 10:58 remaining.
Stony Brook’s 3-point woes did not disappear — it became more magnified, making just one of 19 attempts. The lone made triple on the afternoon came at an opportune time, with Policelli finally connecting from the wing to extend his team’s advantage to 49-41 as the clock wound under four minutes. NJIT made only one basket from that point on.
“I don’t think we’re going to get 10 more games,” Ford acknowledged. “I’m certainly hopeful. That’d be wonderful. But we probably won’t, and if we don’t, that’s just going to only magnify the games we did play.”
For now, Stony Brook is scheduled to host the Hartford Hawks at Island Federal Arena next weekend on Jan. 30 and 31 before facing the UMBC Retrievers the following week.