Junior guard Earlette Scott takes a shot in a game against Arizona on March 22. It was the first time the women’s basketball team at Stony Brook University played in the NCAA Tournament. ETHAN TAM/THE STATESMAN

By reaching the NCAA Tournament, the 2020-21 Stony Brook women’s basketball team had already accomplished what no other Seawolves squad had. Despite losing in the first round to the No. 3-seeded Arizona Wildcats 79-44 on March 22 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, there is hope for what this experience can bring for the future of the program.

“We’re going to remember and reflect upon this season because we made history,” head coach Caroline McCombs said in a postgame press conference. “This is for all the women that have worn a Stony Brook jersey before.”

Having checked off the elusive achievement of finally playing in the NCAA Tournament, McCombs believes the standard of advancing this far every year has been set. Her eyes are now focused on winning a tournament game, not just participating in one.

“This is going to sting for a while,” junior guard Asiah Dingle said in a postgame press conference. “But just being here is what I’ve always dreamed of. We’ll learn from it and be here again next year.”

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Arizona entered the tournament having lost three of its last four games, earning an at-large bid after losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 semifinals. A No. 14 seed has never beaten a No. 3 seed before in the women’s NCAA Tournament and for a brief moment, the Seawolves led — senior forward McKenzie Bushee scored the first points of the game and Dingle made both free throws on a trip to the line to put Stony Brook up 4-2.

Arizona turned on its suffocating defense from that point on, forcing Seawolves turnovers everywhere, whether it was off the inbound, in the backcourt or under the hoop. The Wildcats embarked on a 15-2 run before McCombs called a timeout to settle her team down from the intense pressure they were facing at all fronts.

“The physicality of the game was really like nothing we had ever seen,” McCombs said. “Maybe Syracuse gave us a look like that this year.”

Arizona averaged 10.5 steals per game this season. By the end of the first quarter, they had already forced Stony Brook to commit 11 turnovers. This rocky stretch allowed the Wildcats to seize control of the contest and never look back as they got off 20 shots in the frame compared to the Seawolves’ seven.

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Wildcats senior guard Aari McDonald, projected to be a top-10 pick in this year’s WNBA Draft, led all players with 20 points, including seven during that run. Stony Brook turned the ball over just twice in the second quarter yet shot just three-for-17 against a bigger, more physical Arizona team that was able to deny the Seawolves opportunities for easy baskets.

Both schools entered the game owning one of the top defenses in the country, but the Wildcats were able to open a 27-point lead by halftime, converting 63% of their shots on 20-for-32 shooting.

Dingle capped off a strong debut season for the Seawolves with a team-high 14 points.

“I thought once we gathered ourselves, we played a strong second half,” McCombs said. “I just can’t say enough about how special this team is.”

Stony Brook’s bench remained loud and energetic until the game finished, with a strong crowd of fans cheering them on in the stands. McCombs dedicated this game to the graduated members of last season’s squad, which put up a 28-3 record before the tournament was canceled.

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“My heart will always go out to our graduating seniors last year that never had a chance to play in that championship game,” she said. “This is really for them as well, because they deserved this last year.”

The Seawolves end the year with a 15-6 record. Having gone 66-17 over the last three seasons, the team doesn’t see this success stopping anytime soon.

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