Stony Brook basketball coach Steve Pikiell and his players to emphasize the importance of their battle with Vermont for the America East Tournament title and an automatic NCAA bid at 11 a.m. Saturday at Stony Brook Arena. The Seawolves need only recall the feeling from a year ago, when they built a 15-point lead with just under 17 minutes left in the final at Boston University and then lost when the Terriers' John Holland made two free throws with 2.4 seconds left after a foul on Dallis Joyner.
"From Day 1, we set a goal to have this game at home because we know how important that is," Pikiell said Thursday. "We lost last year by two points. Maybe that call isn't made if it's in our gym.
"Our seniors knew how important that was to get the home game, and it's meant a lot to our program even without playing the game yet. The buzz on campus and in the community is great. There's never been an awareness of basketball in this area like there is right now."
That was clear Thursday morning from the line outside Pritchard Gym for tickets on sale to the public. Pikiell worked the crowd, encouraging fans to wear red and be loud. On Wednesday, the line for student tickets stretched far down the sidewalk outside the gym.
"At one point, I went out and thanked them and said, 'Make sure you don't sleep in,' " Pikiell said. "College students sleep until 2 o'clock. In this league, we never get a chance to experience March Madness unless you get to this [championship] game. That's why there's such great excitement."
A standing-room-only crowd approaching 5,000 is expected for a game that will be televised on ESPN2. The Seawolves were 13-0 at Pritchard, but the game was moved to the larger arena, which has been refurbished for the occasion. In the 28 years in which the America East final has been contested on the highest seed's court, the home team has won 25 times.
Stony Brook (22-8) and Vermont (22-11) split two games during the season, with the Catamounts winning the last meeting by 19 points in Burlington when guard Four McGlynn scored 24 points. "If we give him 24 points again, we won't win the game," Pikiell said.
In terms of their grind-it-out styles and balanced attacks, Pikiell said the two teams are very similar, noting "we're like 1-2 in every category in the league." Besides McGlynn, the Catamounts feature first-team all-conference guard Matt Glass (12.1 points, 41.7 three-point percentage), forward Luke Apfeld (10.4, 4.0 rebounds), standout defensive forward Brendan Bald and versatile forward Brian Voelkel (8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists).
The Seawolves counter with a strong front line of Joyner (9.0 points, 6.5 rebounds), Tommy Brenton (8.1, 8.0) and Al Rapier (8.0, 5.0), athletic guard Dave Coley (10.0), leading scorer Bryan Dougher (13.4) and a deep bench averaging 22.2 points per game. Dougher needs two points to set Stony Brook's Division I career scoring record.
"You can't script it any better," Pikiell said. "Hopefully, the first basket, Bryan will get it and won't have to worry about that anymore. But my guys are about winning, not individual stuff. This senior class had nothing as freshmen. We had no tradition of winning, but they believed in the school, the staff and themselves. It's a special group."
And Saturday's game is the moment they've dreamed about.