ALBANY – Hartford kept finding answers Sunday night, mostly off the fingertips of Corban Wroe, whose three-pointers staked to the Hawks to an early lead and helped them nearly pull of an epic comeback.
But in a tough, intense game, the answers ran out before the time on the clock. A little stronger and a little more versatile, Stony Brook pulled away early in the second half and hung on down the stretch for a 69-64 victory in an America East Conference semifinal at SEFCU Arena.
“They made a couple more plays than we did,” said Hartford forward Mark Nwakamma, who had 16 points and six rebounds.
The Hawks (17-16) trailed by 15 with 7:31 remaining. The three-pointer that Anthony Jackson hit from the left, making it 64-49, seemed like the dagger. But Hartford, whose spurts through the second half kept the game in striking distance, found another gasp of air, scoring 12 straight points to ensure this game would end in high-pressure, anxious circumstances.
With Hartford trailing 65-61, Nwakamma missed a jump shot and, on the next possession, missed a shot in the paint. He then had his put-back blocked by Jameel Warney, Stony Brook’s 6-foot-8, 260-pound conference player of the year.
“Great block, great player, and you tip your hat,” Hartford coach John Gallagher said. “I thought we had the momentum and that there was a little stage fright [on Stony Brook’s part]. But that’s why he’s the player of the year. He made the play.”
So Stony Brook, coached by Bristol native and former UConn captain and assistant coach Steve Pikiell, moves on to the championship game next Saturday. The Seawolves, in the championship game for the third time and looking for their first victory, will host fourth-seeded Albany, which upset top-seeded Vermont in Sunday’s first semifinal.
Guard Carson Puriefoy led Stony Brook with a career-high 21 points. Fellow guard Anthony Jackson had 14. Down low, Warney (10 points, nine rebounds) was a major presence.
“It will be nice to bring some March Madness to our campus,” Pikiell said.
Hartford is eligible for a postseason bid and would accept an invitation as a road team in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. The Hawks paid a hosting fee to play a first-round CIT game at home last season, losing to Rider.
Wroe nearly shot the Hawks to the brink of the NCAA Tournament, making seven three-pointers for a career-high 21 points. Taylor Dyson and Yolonzo Moore each added nine for Hartford, which had its season end in the semifinals for the third time in four years.
Nwakamma sat the final six minutes of the first half with two fouls and returned with Hartford trailing by two to start the second. He picked up his third foul just 31 seconds in, on Stony Brook’s first possession. Nwakamma remained in the game and made a jump shot, but that play seemed to change the approach of both teams, and the complexion of the game.
“The third foul on Mark was huge,” Gallagher said. “We started being a little timid. When your alpha dog gets a third foul, when your horse and go-to go is timid, it affects the group. And then with 10 minutes to go we said, ‘This is it, fellas,’ and we showed great resiliency in that stretch. But we were just a little too timid [prior to that].”
Stony Brook scored 11 unanswered points to lead 46-33, part of an overall 18-2 run. The Hawks kept pushing, though. Wroe’s final three-pointer make it 67-64 with 44 seconds left, but Puriefoy drove into the lane – a strong move to the basket that epitomized Stony Brook’s second half approach – for a basket that iced it with 10 seconds left.
“In the past you’d probably see us down 16 and they’d blow it out to 30 at one point,” Wroe said. “A lot of teams would roll over and die. I’m really proud of the team, what we did, and it’s really going to help us next year."