STONY BROOK, N.Y. – Dave Coley didn’t say much, but he said it all.
“It’s hard,” the Stony Brook senior guard said before a noticeable pause. “With the environment, with the game, with the anxiety going on, the emotion, the will to win… (another pause) I gotta get out of here.”
Known so much for toughness on the floor, among other things, Coley just lost it. He broke down and headed out of the interview room along with two teammates who were there.
This is the flip side of what is often highlighted about this time of the year. We see the thrill of victory, which is certainly there, especially when a team that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in a long time or in their entire history gets there. We see it when fans storm the court to celebrate right after the final buzzer sounds. But there’s also the agony of defeat, and you saw it in Coley. You got a sense with his long pause and short response to an early question that he was taking this hard, and his later response confirmed it.
And you can’t blame him.
Coley’s career may not be over, as the Seawolves could get into another postseason tournament, but this was his last chance to get to the NCAA Tournament. He’s been at the school during a stretch where they have become an annual contender in the America East Conference. They won two regular season titles in his career and twice hosted the championship game, but neither team emerged victorious. He scored over 1,000 points. He was named third team All-America East the last two seasons and made the All-Defensive team both seasons. His class is the winningest in the program’s Division I history with 85 wins and possibly more.
“They came when no one believed in the program,” said Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell of his seniors. “All they’ve done since then is win games, graduate, get better at basketball, swing punches for our program, go to championship games, win regular season championships, play in postseason. They’ve done a lot.”
None of it was any consolation on Saturday, and it won’t be for some time. Competitors want to win, especially for the chance to go dancing.
This is what you work for from the beginning of practice. You want to get to the NCAA Tournament. You play all year for the opportunity, then to cash in on it. Winning is hard, and coming so close to winning a championship but falling short is hard to deal with. It can bring even a tough competitor like Coley to his knees.
“It’s not our birthright,” said Pikiell. “We’ve got to win that game. Games are hard to win. It’s hard to get to this game, it’s hard to win it. You’ve got to play well, you’ve got to make some shots.”
Coley is but one example of this. Many players across the country have had their careers end in the last week, falling short of the goal of being in the NCAA Tournament. Many of them have surely gotten emotional about it. They did all they could to try to get their team into the Big Dance, but were unable to do it.
A lot will be written about Stony Brook having another great regular season that ended without an NCAA Tournament bid. Pikiell knows this, as a number of his comments were clearly directed at that story angle. He’s probably feeling a bit of heat for that – not from anyone in the administration at the school, but in terms of public opinion.
And maybe he, too, is hurting from having the chances they have had without cashing any of them in, although that manifested itself quite differently on Saturday. He’s a competitor, too. Rather than breaking down, he appeared to go on offense against the measurement of his program’s success by the lack of an NCAA Tournament bid, and understandably so because that’s not the only measure of success.
Stony Brook is 41-7 in America East play the last three seasons. From 2009-10 to last season, they were regular season champions three times, with the one season they didn’t being a year where key injuries hit them hard. Oddly enough, that season was the closest they have come to winning the title, as they led in the final seconds of the championship game and still had a chance to win at the end.
Pikiell has built this program to the point where they can compete for championships every year. Ultimately, though this team made it to the championship game, perhaps this team simply wasn’t ready to win a game of this magnitude. Although the Seawolves have three significant seniors, a lot of this team is young as they also have just one junior, big man Anthony Mayo. As Pikiell has noted, they have the reigning Player of the Year in sophomore Jameel Warney, more key sophomores in Carson Puriefoy, Rayshaun McGrew and Scott King. Starter Ahmad Walker is a redshirt freshman.
“Stony Brook is good, and we’re going to continue to be good,” said Pikiell. “You can judge us on some NCAA bid, I got all that stuff, but we’re pretty good. We’re in good shape, and Coach Pikiell will get right back up tomorrow and we’ll be trying to get back here and compete for a league title next year.”
Pikiell had a lot to offer on Saturday to keep everything in perspective at a tough time. On the other hand, Coley didn’t have a lot of words to offer. In so doing, he said a tremendous amount.