Graduate guard Jahlil Jenkins playing defense in the game against Vermont on Jan. 26. Jenkins led the Seawolves with 17 points. KAT PROCACCI/THE STATESMAN

In the final regular season conference matchup ever between the Stony Brook men’s basketball team and its rival Vermont Catamounts, the Seawolves looked promising early but could not withstand the Catamounts’ second-half offensive attack.

The 80-67 loss on Wednesday, Jan. 26 put Stony Brook (12-7, 4-2 AE) two games back of Vermont (14-4, 6-0 AE) in the conference standings, meaning that the Seawolves would need to win three more games than the Catamounts from here on out in order to clinch the regular season title, given Vermont’s head-to-head tiebreaker with the sweep.

“You’re just going to have to play really well to beat that team,” head coach Geno Ford said in a postgame press conference. “I don’t know that we played really well, but we played well — and we’ve got to find another notch against them. But when you lead for 17 minutes in the first half, it’s not about effort. They were better than us tonight. That’s the reality.”

The Seawolves had never beaten the Catamounts at home since March 12, 2016, the fateful day when Jameel Warney’s 43-point effort sent the program to its first March Madness appearance. Since that day, Stony Brook was 1-11 in total against Vermont, its lone win coming on the road in 2020 when guard Elijah Olaniyi, then a junior, put up a 28-point, 11-rebound double-double in an 81-77 win.

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Make that 1-12.

The 11th of those losses came just two weeks ago in a 33-point drubbing, Stony Brook’s worst margin of defeat in five years. With the disastrous outing fresh on every player’s minds, one would expect a full, passionate effort in exacting revenge.

That’s what the Seawolves did in the first half. Jumping out to an early lead, Stony Brook forced Vermont into multiple reckless turnovers while exhibiting great energy and the offensive vision to find teammates on backdoor cuts for points.

In a reversal of the last matchup between these two schools, neither team could get anything going from beyond the arc for most of the first half. Both made just two of their first nine shots from distance, but a deep ball from graduate guard Jahlil Jenkins in transition, when he had a fastbreak opportunity yet stopped before the line to fire away, gave the Seawolves a momentum-boosting eight-point lead.

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“We asserted our will early,” Ford said. “We were flying around at a good speed defensively and impacted some of their possessions. We had a lot of deflections early and were able to get them out of rhythm at times.”

Stony Brook’s largest lead came at 20-11, but the Seawolves offense fell into a cold spell, settling for rushed threes and early shots while double-teamed. Vermont eventually made the 3-pointers that it was capable of, including a pair from its junior guard Eric Beckett, who had played just six minutes the entire season and had yet to attempt a bucket in any game. His second gave Vermont a 34-31 lead into the half, right after redshirt junior guard Anthony Roberts had tied the game himself with his own triple.

Jenkins helped Stony Brook grab the lead back with a three and a steal that led to a 3-point play, but for every basket the Seawolves made, the Catamounts answered right back. Vermont began the second half shooting 12-for-15 (80%) from the field and at one point made five consecutive 3-pointer attempts. 

“We led for as many minutes as they did,” Ford said. “It was just unfortunate that when we got down a little bit, they kept sticking those dagger threes, and some of them were contested very well. We had hands up on many of them, and they made them anyway.”

Stony Brook had a strong offensive second half, shooting 47% overall and 40% from three while committing only three turnovers, but it was not enough to overcome Vermont’s 63% shooting and eight made triples in the frame. 

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“We’re not a team that’s played a lot of zone,” Ford said. “It’s not something we’re good at, so we stuck with man-to-man.”

Down 73-63, Ford cited how his team missed two straight front ends of a one-and-one as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Perfect free-throw shooting would have cut Stony Brook’s deficit to four points with four minutes left.

Stony Brook was again the team with the thorn in its side, just seemingly unable to beat Vermont even if the result was closer on Wednesday than in round one.

We’re going to obviously have to play them again at some point to do what we’d like to do,” Ford said. “I don’t have any question that our guys will believe that we can beat them if we see them a third time. But we’re going to have to play just a little bit better.”

Jenkins had 17 and Roberts had 16 to pace the Seawolves, while Vermont was led by graduate guard Ben Shungu’s 21 and senior forward Ryan Davis’ 20.

Olaniyi was seen during pregame warmups and was dressed on the bench the entire game but did not play. He did not travel with the team for Stony Brook’s last two road games against Binghamton and Albany, taking a leave of absence.

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“He’s in the process of re-integrating himself at this point,” Ford said when asked about Olaniyi’s status. “I don’t really have a very clear and decisive answer, but he’s getting back with us at this time.”

Stony Brook will look to remain perfect against all non-Vermont members of the conference in its next game against the New Hampshire Wildcats on Friday, Jan. 28 at 5 p.m.

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