WORCESTER, Mass. – It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Tuesday becomes a turning point for Stony Brook. The Seawolves have had to overcome their share of adversity, which lately has included some tough losses late in games. But on Tuesday, they came out on the winning end of a close game as they pulled out a 54-53 win at Holy Cross, another team that has had plenty of adversity early on as the Crusaders are now 0-7.
Stony Brook started out auspiciously after a season-opening loss at Connecticut, winning their next three games. Two came on the road at Monmouth and Fairleigh Dickinson, the former a nationally televised game that started at 6 a.m. as part of ESPN’s College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon. But then they lost the aforementioned three straight, all by five points or less including an overtime loss to Lehigh, before pulling out Tuesday night’s win.
“We’ve been battling a lot of adversity all year long,” head coach Steve Pikiell said.
Stony Brook is having to play a little differently without star forward Tommy Brenton, who dislocated his right knee in a pickup game before practice started. That’s where the adversity began, as Brenton led the America East Conference in rebounding last year and figured to be primed to not only do that again but also bring his scoring up towards double digits.
With Brenton out, Pikiell has spent more time working on rebounding with his team. He also is more conscious of the size he has on the floor at a given time, and that’s why it helps that Anthony Mayo has been able to contribute right away as a freshman since he adds size there.
“I used to go into every game knowing we would out-rebound everybody,” Pikiell said. “We’re playing a little bit different, a little smaller than I would like. But we’re playing a little bit faster, too. We mix up defenses, trying to generate some offense from our defense.”
While it’s highly unlikely he returns this season, they aren’t ruling out that possibility since his recovery is going better than expected. But even if he’s ready to go well into January, a practical question arises because of the point in the season he would return, because by then players have settled into certain roles and adding a player would change that drastically, more so than if he were to return next week.
“We’ve got to sprinkle the minutes now in a different way,” Pikiell added, noting also that he’d rather bring Al Rapier off the bench at this point in time and groom him to start later. “Our frontcourt is not with us right now, and we have to sprinkle the infield with a lot of different guys.”
Nine players average at least 13 minutes per game, to Pikiell’s point. He’s trying to develop depth, and the non-conference stretch is the time to do it. Helping is that all three true freshmen have contributed and are all among those playing at least 13 minutes a game. Mayo recently moved into the starting lineup and has had blocked at least one shot in every game in his young college career. Dave Coley is fourth on the team in scoring and is a tough guard who was right in the thick of things on Tuesday. Pikiell sees Coley growing through this stretch, which will only help with the talent he has.
“I’m pleased, I’m playing him through some tough times and he’s learning how to survive in Division I,” Pikiell said. “I’m very confident, he practices the right way, he prepares for games, he’s in the gym, he’s a great kid.”
The Seawolves have been in every game, thanks largely to their defense. Although Holy Cross shot just under 47 percent from the field on Tuesday night, the Seawolves entered the game holding opponents to 37 percent shooting and force over 15 turnovers a game. While the Crusaders shot well, they turned it over 22 times, with 11 coming in each half. With Dallis Joyner also sidelined for the second straight game, they were out-rebounded 39-28. Bryan Dougher, a conference Player of the Year candidate, never got going as he scored eight points on just 2-9 shooting. But they found a way to pull it out, and much like the season as a whole, overcame some adversity to do it.
Coley scored all nine of his points in the second half, none bigger than the final two. But it began earlier, with a game-tying jumper with 8:35 left. Later, with Holy Cross leading 53-50, he hit a jumper to get them within one. About a minute later, he stripped Holy Cross guard Andrew Beinert. After a miss at the offensive end, he committed a loose ball foul, but it didn’t hurt them as the front end of a one-and-one was missed.
He would get another chance, getting the ball with 17 seconds left, but nearly turned it over. After another timeout, they drew up a play for him. He drove toward the basket, made a slight move left and laid the ball in with one second left. After they knocked down the inbound pass, they held on.
“We haven’t closed out the last couple of games, so it’s big for us to come out and get this one,” Dougher said.
Pikiell drew the last play up for Coley, a big vote of confidence for the freshman. Pikiell said he needs to finish games better, and gave him the chance to do so in this one. It paid off.
“He believed in me and I was fortunate to make the play,” Coley said after the game.
The Seawolves won a close game after three tough losses. They did it without Brenton, with Joyner out again and with Dougher having a rough night. Pikiell talked about how they pride themselves on their defense, and it showed. It’s one thing to be in every game, as they have been save for the season opener, but breaking through to win them is another matter. Tuesday night, they did that, and it could prove to be a turning point down the road.