Graduate forward Leighah-Amori Wool and senior guard Anastasia Warren in a game against Delaware State on Nov. 9. The Stony Brook women’s basketball is off to a 3-0 start to the season. KAT PROCACCI/THE STATESMAN

It’s business as usual in Island Federal Arena.

Quiet. Light-hearted. 

Even on an off day, players trickle in to pass the time and practice their 3-pointers.

It’s not quite the environment of a team coming off its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth and second-straight America East championship, but that’s the point. The Stony Brook women’s basketball team doesn’t need to be reminded of the expectations on their shoulders this year, because they hold themselves to a higher standard than anyone else.

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“We know what our goal is this year, and we know what we have to protect,” senior guard Earlette Scott said in an interview with The Statesman. “So it’s just been the same, pretty much just last year.”

For better or worse, the current iteration of the program will forever be defined by the canceled America East finals in March 2020. The Seawolves, who had a nation-best 22-game win streak earlier, saw the COVID-19 outbreak end their season. They were declared the de facto conference champions, but the pandemic denied them a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Last March, Stony Brook found redemption by upsetting the Maine Black Bears to win another America East title and finally reach the tournament. The 14th-seeded Seawolves lost to the No. 3 Arizona Wildcats, who went on to reach the final round, but the game was a learning experience first and foremost.

The remaining players who went through that journey now understand what it takes to win a title, and how quickly it can be taken away. 

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“We always want to focus on one thing at a time to get prepared for those moments,” junior guard Gigi Gonzalez said. “But keep it in our rearview, ready to go to the next level as well. The mindset is really just staying positive with the team.”

And as for the newer players — four freshmen and two transfer students — they have veterans like Scott to impart that patient, goal-oriented mindset.

“I’m just tagging [the new players] along and making sure that they take everything slow and be confident in everything they do,” Scott said. “I know people get caught up in trying to win everything. Just understand that it’s a marathon. Championships are not won in November, they’re won in March.”

The tournament berth kicked off a chain of events that left a team that bears little resemblance to last year’s. With two championships and 130 wins on her resume, head coach Caroline McCombs left Stony Brook in April after seven years to coach at George Washington. Guard Asiah Dingle transferred to Fordham in June after leading the team with 11.8 points per game. Longtime star guard Hailey Zeise, an All-Championship and All-Defensive selection, opted not to return for her final year of eligibility.

That leaves Scott, senior guard Anastasia Warren and graduate forward India Pagan as the three remaining starters from last year, with questions as to who else will round out the rotation. The changes have not shaken outside confidence in the team. In an annual preseason poll, six out of nine America East coaches predicted the Seawolves would win the conference.

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“I don’t like to switch up a lot,” first-year head coach Ashley Langford said. “I think the best teams are consistent. And that can go from your starters are pretty much the same. Now that doesn’t mean that I won’t ever adjust if I need to. But I think everyone’s more confident when they know when they’re playing, they can understand the rotation.”

The unenviable task of finding Dingle and Zeise’s replacements now falls on Langford’s shoulders, but it should not prove too difficult with a roster whose depth is its greatest strength. Ten players averaged at least 11 minutes per game last year. 

“Even with those two not being a part of this team, there are still so many weapons,” Langford said. “We’re really versatile. I designed the offense around our player personnel. And I’m looking at it and I’m like, ‘Whoa, we can go inside. We can go outside. We got guards that could post up.’ We got so many different options.”

Gonzalez and graduate forward McKenzie Bushee are perhaps the two most likely candidates to earn more playing time. Bushee, who has been with the team since her freshman year, was named the America East Sixth Player of the Year last season while shooting .537 from the field, the highest on the team among qualified scorers. She added 13 blocks and nine steals, a defensive effort that will be invaluable now that Zeise is gone. 

Gonzalez played only 212 minutes but appeared in many of the season’s high-stakes moments, including when she gave Stony Brook an early 16-15 lead against Maine in the conference finals. She helped embody the passionate, gritty play that defined the Seawolves’ title run. 

She said she has been working on her shooting and driving “downhill” to the basket this offseason.

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“I’m definitely gonna take on a bigger role,” Gonzalez said. “Being there for my teammates, helping them out a lot more. I feel like I always had some type of [leadership] role with my speaking, and … now that I’m older, I have more confidence in that role.”

With Dingle gone, there will be even more pressure on Warren to lead the offense. Warren averaged 10.6 points last year — the only player besides Dingle to reach double digits — and made 28 3-pointers, nearly twice as many as anyone else.

But Warren truly came into her own during the postseason, where she was named Most Outstanding Player. She almost single-handedly willed the Seawolves to their win over Maine with four 3-pointers and 31 points, the most by a Stony Brook athlete in 14 years. No other player besides Dingle had more than four points.

“We know we have a target on our backs that says ‘number one,’” Warren said. “So we’re working hard to keep that going throughout the season. Even with a new coach, new players, we really believe in ourselves and we trust each other. And we’re in here practicing every day, so we know what we can do as a team.”

Warren was named to the Preseason All-Conference Team along with Pagan, another unquestioned team leader and the centerpiece of the Seawolves’ game plan. A menace inside the paint, Pagan consistently draws double and triple-teams that open up the floor for the rest of Stony Brook’s scorers. 

The team’s identity remains its smothering, swarm-to-the-ball defense. Stony Brook allowed 52 points per game last year, fourth-best among the nation’s 336 Division I teams. Zeise was a big part of that success, but bench players like graduate forward Leighah-Amori Wool (10 steals, six blocks) were equally important and should have more opportunities this year. 

Langford’s defensive philosophy differs slightly from McCombs’, but she has no problem with conforming to her players’ existing mindset. 

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“Our team, they want to steal the basketball, which is a little different than what I’m accustomed to,” Langford said. “But I’m a coach. If they get excited about stealing the ball, okay, well, maybe we put some schemes in here, right? Maybe we use that to our advantage. I’m never gonna say ‘Hey, it’s got to be my way.’”

With an 80-33 exhibition slaughtering of Adelphi already under their belts, the Seawolves will head into their Nov. 9 season opener with expectations exceeded only by their confidence in themselves. 

“I want to win every game,” Langford said. “That’s how I’ve been in my whole life is like, ‘Alright, here’s the challenge, reach it. Alright, what’s the next one?’ It all aligns. We all have the same goal, and that’s to go dancing.”

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