Jameel Warney just played his last home game at Stony Brook. It also happened to be his best game -- his 43 points were not just a career high, but also a school record. It also happened to be his most important. After three years of increasingly improbable heartbreak, Warney and the Seawolves have finally clinched a berth in the elusive NCAA Tournament by beating Vermont in the America East tournament final.
The crowd that stormed this court an hour and a half ago is gone. Now it's just Warney, his trophies, and some leftover confetti. He carefully places his shiny conference championship trophy to his left, his equally shiny MVP award to his right and lowers himself to the floor. As a teammate snaps a picture, he kisses the school logo.
Although the Seawolves have gotten used to consistent regular season success, the team wasn't always good. Steve Pikiell, once a point guard at Jim Calhoun's UConn, keeps a picture of his first game of his 4-24 debut season in his office.
"There were maybe 100 students," Pikiell says. "Now they're scalping tickets."
But while they've been consistent in winning, they've also become consistent in losing somewhere their regular season championship and the tournament championship that actually comes with a trip to March Madness.
I'm not exaggerating about the heartbreak. This upcoming paragraph is about to be long and unsightly, but that's just how many times Stony Brook has managed to lose in unfortunate ways.
In 2010, the Seawolves were the No. 1 seed, but lost to Boston University in the semifinals. In 2011, refs called a foul on the Seawolves with two seconds to go in the championship game, BU sank both, and went to the tournament. In 2012, Stony Brook won the league title and hosted the championship game, but Vermont methodically crushed them, winning 51-43. In 2013, Stony Brook was the top seed, but Albany got to host the first two rounds of the tournament, and turned the home court advantage into a game-winning layup with 2.4 seconds to go. (The conference later let higher seeds host all home sites.) In 2014, Stony Brook hosted the championship game again, but lost to Albany again. Last year, the Seawolves led the championship game late, but a missed free throw meant the Seawolves only led by two in the game's closing seconds. Albany missed a two-point attempt that would've tied the game and the ball bounced out to the three-point line, allowing Albany to hit a game-winning three.
That's six years with six disappointing exits after great seasons. For a team with a history of postseason success, this would be brutal. For a team yearning for a single NCAA Tournament bid, it was absolutely devastating.
This year, they were great again, including an 18-game win streak that lasted from December to February. Warney was a freakin' behemoth, averaging 19.8 points on 63.7 percent shooting, grabbing 10.7 rebounds ("I'm one of the best offensive rebounders in the country," Warney accurately says) and blocking 10.1 percent of opposing shots when he's on the floor. Not a lot of great players even stay in college three for years. Warney won back-to-back-to-back conference player of the year trophies.
The good news is this earned Warney and the Seawolves another chance to make the NCAA Tournament. The bad news, of course, is that this earned Warney and the Seawolves another chance to blow their chance to make the NCAA Tournament. And it came against Vermont, the only team that had beaten them at home in conference play.
A school of over 25,000 students about 50 miles down Long Island from Manhattan, Stony Brook plays its games in a 4,000-seat gym. About 4,000 fans scooped up all those broken heart pieces, hammered them together, and decided if they made this gym the loudest place on Long Island, the same thing wouldn't happen again.
Then the same thing started to happen again.
Warney showed up. He had 18 points in the first half on just nine shots. One Vermont big man guarding him picked up four fouls in the first half, a teammate had three.
His teammates, um, didn't show up? They went just 3-for-19 in the first half as Vermont built a nine-point lead at halftime. And it ballooned to 15 in the first minutes of the second half.
The loudest place on Long Island became the most awkward place on Long Island. Since this was technically a conference tournament game and not a true Stony Brook home game, Vermont's band and cheerleaders got to entertain the crowd every other timeout. Early in the game, these unwelcome interludes were met with a hearty wave of boos. But as Vermont piled up the points, the reception faded to the point where it was merely lukewarm.
This is when Warney was supposed to get frustrated. He was giving 100,000 percent, but that hadn't mattered in the past, and it didn't seem to matter now. He had tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed and now here he was trying, and here he was failing again.
Instead, Warney had decided he'd had enough. In the potential final moments of a dominant career, Warney found the strength to dominate harder than he'd ever dominated. In the last 16 minutes of the game, he scored 23 points on 11-for-11 shooting.
His teammates decided it was time to play alongside him. Fellow senior Carson Puriefoy drilled some threes in the comeback. The game-tying bucket was made not by Warney, but by Rayshaun McGrew. And the refs... well, let's just say they made the Stony Brook fans very happy with a few calls.
Vermont's gameplan was to keep Warney from getting the ball, knowing their regular big men would be outmatched against a player of Warney's caliber. But then two of their big men fouled out. Now, when Warney got the ball, he was getting it against the guys that were on the bench behind the guys who Vermont knew would be outmatched. It was a freakin' massacre.
You might think Warney is simply bigger, stronger and faster than his tiny league opponents. Of course, he is, but boiling his talent down to pure physical capabilities does a disservice to his game. He can score with power, he can score on the move, he can score with finesse. Sometimes he legitimately bullies his opponent and finishes with a thunderous dunk. Others he gracefully drops the ball through the net with touch and finesse. Sometimes he finds teammates with nifty passes.
As the Seawolves roared back from the brink of tragedy, Warney did all these things, and he didn't fail once. He committed his last turnover with 16:16 to go, he missed his last shot with 15:50 to go.
I saw Jameel Warney personally decide that he was done failing. I wish I had the ability to make this happen when I needed it to happen. Unfortunately, I am not as good at anything as Jameel Warney is at ruining America East opponents. Now, he gets the opportunity to try to ruin somebody in the NCAA Tournament.
The Seawolves won, 80-74. The gym doesn't quite have enough space for all the decibels the fans made in the closing seconds. When the buzzer sounded, the crowd streamed onto the court.
Here's the moment Stony Brook clinched its first NCAA Tournament berth: pic.twitter.com/ekCGcJz3C8— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) March 12, 2016
For about an hour, this was a celebration for the entire school. Security tried to clear the students from the floor to give out the trophy, but it simply wasn't going to happen. Although net cutting ceremonies are typically reserved for the team and coaches, a cheerleader, a dancer and a band member all got to snip a piece. A lot of the chanting was wild, indiscriminate joy, but I swear, I heard somebody actually say to a friend "THIS MUST LOOK GREAT FOR OUR SCHOOL'S PROFILE" and I whipped around and it was a real live student and not some PR guy trying to drop appropriate statements with a reporter two feet away.
Warney happily took a picture with anybody who asked. He must've starred in what hundreds of selfies. After all, with the whole school on the court, this was still everybody's celebration.
But after everybody filed out, it was time for him to take his own photo. In some ways, it's tragic Warney will only get to celebrate one NCAA Tournament berth in his college career. He was good enough that he deserved two or three trips.
But one celebration may be enough. As he kisses the floor in a virtually empty gym, he seems perfectly fine with this moment, as long as he can make it last a lifetime.
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