Senior forward Mouhamadou Gueye in a game against Hartford on Jan. 30. Gueye had a career-high against UMBC on Feb. 7 with 17 points and eight blocks. SARA RUBERG/THE STATESMAN

Entering the weekend, the Stony Brook men’s basketball team was just a game back of first place and had an opportunity to return to the top of the standings with a pair of games against the UMBC Retrievers, the current leader.

Instead, the Seawolves dropped both games at home on Feb. 7 and 8, falling to .500 in conference play, three games behind first and continuing the trend of underwhelming play since the team returned from a three-week COVID-19 pause.

“The disappointing part is that there was a really good team in the gym today, but they weren’t wearing Stony Brook uniforms,” head coach Geno Ford said after the sweep.

Redshirt-sophomore forward Frankie Policelli, who leads the America East in three-pointers made, missed both games with a hip injury.

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A 71-65 defeat on Sunday dropped Stony Brook to two games behind UMBC for first place. Going down by as much as 16 points early in the second half, a valiant late effort fell short as the home team never got closer than a one-possession game.

“[UMBC] came out at the start of the game and understood the intensity level when you’re playing for first place,” Ford said after Sunday’s loss. “We played like an inexperienced bunch of new guys who would like to win, but aren’t necessarily playing hard enough early, and they just picked us apart.”

An 11-point halftime deficit continued to grow and Stony Brook found itself down 49-34 before holding UMBC scoreless over the next five minutes. The Seawolves then put up 13 unanswered points, helped by a physically active defense that pressured the Retrievers into committing five turnovers and missing all four of their shot attempts.

When the Seawolves needed points most crucially – down just 59-56 with six minutes to go – the offense went cold, unable to finish inside while the Retrievers built their lead back up to nine.

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“What sputtered the offense [was] they packed the paint so hard that they force you to shoot threes,” Ford said. “We’ve got to drive it more … but it’s hard to get to the rim when we can’t space the floor we’re shooting.”

In a losing effort, senior forward Mouhamadou Gueye set career highs in points (17), blocks (8) and threes made (3). Stony Brook shot 34% from the floor and 29% from beyond the arc, with the team’s shooting woes lingering so long that Ford believes it is not a cold stretch, but the natural identity of the team at this point.

Monday’s contest was more tightly contested to start before UMBC seized control in the opening minutes of the second half en route to a 60-48 win.

“We need to change some things structurally,” Ford said on Monday about Stony Brook’s inability to produce offensively. “We’ve been back long enough after the pause, that’s not the issue.”

A low-scoring first half ended with the Retrievers up 26-24 despite the Seawolves leading for the majority. Neither team was able to truly separate in a constant back-and-forth affair.

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The first two minutes of the second half, however, proved to be disastrous for Stony Brook, who turned the ball over twice and watched UMBC score the first eight points of the frame to quickly open up a double-digit lead.

“If we’re not going to be explosive on offense, attention to detail on defense has to be the number one priority,” Ford said. “In that stretch, they scored on 3-of-4 possessions, and when you go 0-for-4, it’s separation time and you’re uphill sledding the rest of the way.”

Stony Brook still remained within striking distance, down by just two possessions after timely threes from junior guard Juan Felix Rodriguez and senior forward Omar Habwe with five minutes remaining. Every time the Seawolves dug back in with a triple, the Retrievers responded with one of their own.

“It seemed like every time the shot clock got down, they just worked the one-on-one and just were able to put the ball in the basket,” Ford said.

UMBC senior guard Darnell Rogers, believed to be the shortest Division I men’s basketball player in history at 5’2, sank his fourth three-pointer of the afternoon to give the Retrievers a 55-46 lead with 4:04 left.

Gueye continued to be the lone offensive bright spot in Policelli’s absence, leading the team again with a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double on Monday. He shot 5-for-9 from beyond the arc in the series after beginning the season 3-for-15.

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“You’re not going to be able to win with one or two guys being efficient factors on offense,” Ford said. “We’re getting some inconsistency out of some of our top guys. It’s hard to overcome due to the depth we have.”

Now 8-10 (6-6 AE), the Seawolves are 2-6 since their three-week pause and have another hard task up ahead with a road series against the Vermont Catamounts upcoming at Patrick Gym on Feb. 13 and 14. Vermont is currently in second place in the America East.

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