By STEVEN MARCUS firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifth-seeded Stony Brook meets second-seeded Boston University on Saturday in Boston for the America East Conference Tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA's Big Dance.
One more breakout game that results in a victory, and sophomore guard Lenny Hayes will become Stony Brook's dancin' machine.
Every successful team has a compelling story, and for Stony Brook (15-16), it is the 6-4 Hayes. He became an overnight sensation midway through the season and extended his run into the conference tournament, scoring 20 points to ignite an upset of top-seeded Vermont.
The lefthander has scored in double figures in seven of his last nine games and nine of his last 13. He has shot 19-for-30 in his last four games -- and we're not talking layups here. He's hit 13 of his last 16 three-point attempts.
Hayes' seat-to-star tale started Jan. 22 in Maine. Two days earlier, he had played only five minutes and gone scoreless in a 67-62 loss at Boston University, so this couldn't have been predicted.
"We were down by a lot early,'' he said of the Maine game. "Coach [Steve Pikiell] said we were playing scared. When I got in, I wanted to make sure we got a shot up every time. I started coming off screens, shooting and making them. That helped a lot with my confidence.''
Hayes scored a career-high 22 points and pulled down seven rebounds in that game, and though Stony Brook lost, the Seawolves discovered a burgeoning star in Hayes.
He wound up averaging 12.0 points and 3.7 rebounds in 30 minutes in the final 13 games, shooting 56-for-113 from the field and 34-for-68 from three-point range.
Compare that to his stats in Stony Brook's first 18 games: Hayes appeared in only 12 of them, averaging 0.8 points and 0.9 rebounds. He was 4-for-17 from the field and 1-for-8 from three-point range. And he averaged only eight minutes a game.
"It does wear on you,'' Hayes said about that limited playing time. "But you also think about when you get in what you are going to do with that time. I was more thinking about 'what am I going to do with the time' rather than how little minutes I'm playing. I wasn't upset, more frustrated.''
Hayes played sparingly as a freshman, especially because he was behind conference player of the year Muhammad El-Amin. Given the talent ahead of him this season, Hayes thought he'd see about 10 minutes a game. An avalanche of injuries caused Pikiell to alter his lineup on several occasions, but Hayes, who averaged 17.5 points in his senior year of high school at Lawrenceville Prep [N.J.], wasn't really in the mix.
"He's one of those guys who just kept plugging away and found his time to shine,'' Pikiell said. "Have I seen this in practice? No. He's shooting the ball as well as you can shoot the ball. He wasn't having practices like that, no. My big thing with him has always been rebounding. He never, never rebounds. The other day he led us in rebounding.
"Even when he wasn't playing, he was in the gym and stuck to it. Then he got his opportunity in Maine and hasn't been out of the starting lineup since. He knew the system, our defensive scheme. He started bypassing the freshmen because they weren't learning those things as quickly. His persistence really put him in a great position. Opportunity happens and a guy has to be ready to take advantage of it, and that's what Lenny did.''
And now, with Hayes as a major contributor, Pikiell said, "We're 40 minutes away from what a lot of people said we couldn't do here.''
Hayes still is adjusting to his newfound fame, saying, "Nobody's really seen me play until this year. Definitely, a lot of people are surprised, but also now they see it wasn't a one-time thing. Fans come up to me and say, 'I didn't know you could shoot like that.' It's funny because I'm a shooter, so it's funny to listen to that. There's no way they could have known, because I didn't play that much. It was limited minutes.''
Hayes is not overestimating his place in the lineup. "I feel like I'm a relief guy,'' he said. "They concentrate on Bryan [Dougher] and now that he is back, Chris [Martin]. They are drawing all of the attention, kicking [the ball] to me, and I'm open.''
What seems like a very calm demeanor is really hiding a wave of excitement as the game between the Seawolves and BU (20-13) draws near, Hayes said. "There's definitely butterflies,'' he said. "It's the first championship game in Stony Brook history. Everyone is nervous but also excited.''
Hayes' biggest fans are his father, Leonard Jr., and his mother, Lateefah, both of whom played college basketball at St. Peter's, the MAAC men's qualifier for the NCAA Tournament. "That's a great story, too,'' Hayes said. "We are the fifth seed, they were the fourth.''
Hayes said his mom and dad told him they were proud regardless of how much he played, but "you kind of felt like you were disappointing them. You wanted to be out there and you weren't. Now they get to see me doing it.''
Brenton learns from the sideline
Junior forward Tommy Brenton, Stony Brook's best overall player, missed the entire season after injuring his right knee in September, but he said he used the time to focus on the game as if he were a coach.
"I finally understand what the coaches go through,'' he said, "just taking the season from a coaching point of view. As players, you think coaches don't know what they are talking about -- or something like that. Watching it, they are exactly right. We should listen to them more often . . . I feel like I'm playing, I guess, just from yelling and talking to everyone on the court. I do feel a part of this.''
Brenton recalled his injury. "I was in a pickup game and went up to block a shot. My knee went one way, my body went the other and I landed. And I heard cracking and popping. I knew it wasn't a little tweak. I dislocated my patella and I also tore a ligament at the same time. The biggest injury I had before this was a sprained ankle. I thought, 'OK, two weeks, ice it and it'll be good to go for beginning of preseason.' Then I go and get X-rays. That's when I knew it was kind of a serious thing.''
Brenton commiserated with Pikiell, who was recovering from an Achilles tendon injury. "We talked the first few weeks when we were both in a boot how you take the easy things in life for granted,'' he said. "Every day I think about how many hours I spent in the rehab room. I talked to the trainers about how they should just put me on staff.''
Pikiell knows Brenton has missed being part of the action. "These are the games he loved the most,'' the coach said. "I see his frustration; he wants to get checked into the game. He's such a team guy, he led us in steals, he was our best defender, he's the best rebounder in the league, led us in charges. He's a team guy, so he's really excited for our guys.''
With major contributions from Brenton, Stony Brook won the America East regular-season title and earned an invitation to the NIT last season. The Seawolves actually have gotten further in the conference tournament this year despite going only 8-8 in America East regular-season play, and Brenton feels a bit better emotionally because his absence did not prevent the team from doing well in the tournament.
"At first it was like, 'This is Chris [Martin's] senior year, we're real close and I'm not going to be able to help him out,' '' he said. "Now it's like a weight lifted off my shoulders. We can still have a great season. Everyone stepped up.''
Brenton is looking forward to next season, saying, "I just can't wait to get in the gym, live in there. I have a lot of time to make up for.''
The Seawolves had plenty of down time with several players besides Brenton. Here's a look at the players and the number of games they missed because of their injuries:
Chris Martin (knee) 13 games.
Marcus Rouse (knee) 5 games.
Dave Coley (knee) 3 games.
Dallis Joyner (ankle) 2 games.
Eric McAlister (ankle) 1 game.
Also, Anthony Jackson broke his nose and to wear a mask for five games. Joyner was poked in the eye in the third game of the year and had to wear shades until two weeks ago. Preye Preboye had a hand infection after accidentally getting bitten during the game at Notre Dame, but he didn't miss any games.