The Stony Brook women’s basketball team, who clinched the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance with an upset of Maine in the America East finals, drew a No. 14 seed when the bracket was unveiled on Monday, March 15. They are set to face the third-seeded Arizona Wildcats in the Round of 64.
A No. 14 seed has never upset a No. 3 seed in the tournament’s 29-year history.
Despite the odds, head coach Caroline McCombs is optimistic about her team’s chances.
“I think we have a very competitive group,” McCombs said in a press conference. “That’s something that excites me. When they have an opportunity to be really challenged, they take that on and take it personal. So I’m excited to see how we respond.”
The Seawolves played their best basketball of the season in the playoffs, exorcising the ball control and three-point shooting demons that had plagued them all year. They blew out UMass Lowell in the semifinals by 20 and did just enough to defeat tournament regulars Maine.
“I saw a lot of toughness throughout the course of the [championship] game,” McCombs said. “We got down, we were able to fight back. I think that is something, when our backs are against the wall, we really dig down, lock in even more.”
Meanwhile, Arizona dropped three of its last five games while shooting 36% from the floor, to finish the year 16-5 overall.
To top Arizona, the Seawolves will need to play the game of their lives. Stony Brook’s defense, ranked first in the nation in points allowed per game, was able to contain the America East Player of the Year, Maine guard Blanca Millan, for the last three quarters of the championship game.
However, Arizona senior guard Aari McDonald presents a different challenge entirely. McDonald, a second team All-American, led the Pac-12 in scoring and steals for the third straight year. That is a matchup nightmare for a Seawolves team averaging 15.8 turnovers per game.
“Our turnovers have been a little higher than we would like them to be,” McCombs said. “That is going to be a high priority and a very big key to the game.”
If there is a weakness in McDonald’s game, it is her 39% field goal shooting. Arizona’s recent losses were mainly because of that statistic. In a playoff loss to UCLA, McDonald shot 8-for-24. No other Wildcats player had more than seven attempts, and the team finished with a paltry 49 points.
“Everybody’s got to sprint back in transition,” McCombs said. “We’ve got to build a wall and really make it difficult for her to even see an angle. Because if she can see one, she’s going to take it. We really have to pack it in, make it look like there’s nowhere to go.”
The burden of containing McDonald will fall primarily on senior guard Hailey Zeise, whose quick movements along the perimeter give the Seawolves their defensive identity. Holding her to under 20 field goal attempts will likely be impossible, but Arizona’s offense may stall if those shots are contested.
“It’s gonna be everybody’s job and responsibility to guard her,” Zeise said. “We’re excited for the challenge, we’re well within the capability to guard her. It’s just about trusting our defense, trusting that help is gonna be there if we need it, and playing together.”
Offensively, Stony Brook will need to change its game plan. Junior guards Annie Warren and Asiah Dingle carried the team during the playoffs, combining for 76 points in two games — more than half of the team’s total.
“We didn’t have a good inside-outside attack [in the championship],” McCombs said. “We can’t say it’s going to be Annie Warren or just one person that could put the team on their back and lead us to victory. We have to have our balance, I think we’re really good when different people can score on our team.”
Zeise does not think that will be an issue.
“[Our depth] is one of our biggest strengths, especially this year,” she said. “We often have a huge impact from our bench players, every single one of them has shown the ability to step up and score in double digits for us.”
Not counting Warren, the playoffs’ Most Outstanding Player, Stony Brook went 2-for-9 from beyond the three-point arc in the postseason. That may have gotten them by Maine, but it will not be enough against a Wildcats team averaging 5.8 three-pointers per game.
Senior forward India Pagan, averaging just over six points in her last six games, will need to refind her dominance inside the paint. If she can get on the board early, Arizona will be forced to double team her, opening up lanes for Dingle and Warren.
Stony Brook takes the court Monday, March 22 at 2 p.m. on ESPN2.