Graduate guard Elijah Olaniyi with the ball in the game against Sacred Heart on Nov. 11. Olaniyi led the Stony Brook men’s basketball team to victory against the Maine Black Bears. CAM WANG/THE STATESMAN

The prodigal son returned to Island Federal Arena as graduate guard Elijah Olaniyi led the Stony Brook men’s basketball team to an 80-72 win over the Maine Black Bears in the Seawolves’ conference opener on Saturday, Jan. 8.

Stony Brook (9-5, 1-0 AE) led by 21 points in the second half, but a late Maine (3-10, 0-2 AE) surge made the game closer than it could have been at the end. Still, when the final buzzer hit, the Seawolves won their 21st meeting in a row against Maine, a streak that dates back to 2011. Maine has yet to win a Division I contest this season.

“We have a lot of firepower, and if we’re going to defend the way we’ve defended all year, we’re going to need all of it,” head coach Geno Ford said in a postgame press conference. “We need to tighten up our defense. It’s got to get better. But, our firepower is on offense. We scored 80 points and we were 8-for-27 from three.”

Olaniyi was sidelined with an undisclosed leg injury in November against Sacred Heart and missed the last 10 games. He shed his crutches in December and appeared to be progressing, but it was still a surprise to see him participating in the pregame shootaround. He officially made his return to a round of applause four minutes into the game, which grew even louder when he went up for a dunk to score his first points back on the court. 

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Just as the Seawolves got one of their stars back, they appeared to lose another. Redshirt junior guard Anthony Roberts blocked a shot from Maine sophomore guard Adefolarin Adetogun, who landed on Roberts. Roberts remained on the floor, pounding the hardwood in anger as he clutched his knee in immense pain. He was helped off the court by the staff, unable to put any weight on his leg.

After Roberts’ injury, Stony Brook took control of a previously tight game. Redshirt sophomore forward Frankie Policelli drained three straight shots for eight points in a 14-0 run for the Seawolves, who took a commanding 31-17 lead.

“I felt pretty hot coming into the game,” Policelli said. “My teammates and coaches have been telling me to shoot more, and be more aggressive … I made it a point to where if I saw a little bit of space, I was going to put it up.”

Near the end of the first half, Adetogun was involved in another violent play, elbowing graduate guard Omar Habwe in the face. An irate Habwe had to be restrained by his teammates and Adetogun was ejected from the contest, charged with a flagrant-2 foul. 

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Stony Brook led 43-28 at halftime and Roberts, who looked seriously injured earlier, was seen jogging off into the locker room. He started the second half for the Seawolves and buried a three 46 seconds in.

With such a commanding lead, most of the second half was uneventful. Olaniyi proved his recovery and showed off his athleticism by recovering a loose ball in the paint, then banking in the layup through traffic. Later, he threw down another impressive dunk to put the Seawolves up 56-40. After a 3-point play by redshirt junior guard Tykei Greene, Stony Brook led 64-43 with 9:06 left. 

From there, Stony Brook’s defense softened and the offense committed a few ugly turnovers on  passes from graduate guard Jahlil Jenkins. The 25-9 Maine run made it a five-point game with 1:54 left.

“We kind of relaxed a little bit on defense and Coach Ford just told us [that] we’ve got to lock back in,” Policelli said.

With the game slipping from Stony Brook’s hands, Olaniyi played the role of hero in his return to the floor. He snatched a rebound with 1:20 left and then drew a foul, knocking down both free throws to get the lead back to seven. In the waning seconds of the game, Maine freshman guard Byron Ireland charged the lane, went up for a layup, but was vehemently denied by Olaniyi, who protected the rim with an emphatic block.

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Greene and Olaniyi co-led the team in scoring with 16 apiece, while Policelli contributed 14 of his own, hitting half of the team’s 3-pointers for the whole game. Stony Brook had five players score in double figures — Jenkins and Roberts the other two — despite only shooting 8-for-27 as a team from 3-point range. 

The Seawolves’ conference opener was a showcase of Olaniyi’s athleticism; whether he was converting tough layups through traffic, showing his active hands on defense or swatting away late shots to seal the victory, he showed what a difference-maker he is on the court. To help keep himself in playing-shape during his injury layoff, Olaniyi discussed an exercise machine he used.

“It’s called a BFR [blood flow restrictor] and it sucks, but I responded well to that,” he said with a laugh. “As soon as I was able to walk again, I started doing leg workouts with that … I think that really helped just keeping me in shape.”

He also commented on how it felt to return to the lineup with a win by invoking Kobe Bryant: “It feels good, but the job’s not done yet.”

When asked about the team finally being fully healthy — with Olaniyi back and Roberts avoiding major injury — Policelli offered his perspective on where he sees the team and it’s potential right now.

“We have too many weapons, but we’ve got to be able to feed off of each other and play the right way,” Policelli said.

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The Seawolves have been an impressive 8-1 at home this season, but they will need to earn a difficult win on the road in their next outing at the Vermont Catamounts on Wednesday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. Vermont has won the last five America East regular season titles.

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