STONY BROOK, N.Y. (AP) — Everybody wanted a photo with the hero and Jameel Warney was happy to oblige.
With a net around his neck and an MVP trophy in his hand, Stony Brook's unstoppable big man obliged fan after fan. Warney and his teammates were in no rush to leave the floor. The Seawolves had been so close to winning this championship and earning an NCAA bid before, they clearly wanted to savor the accomplishment.
Nobody was more responsible than Warney, who scored 43 points to match an America East Tournament record and lead Stony Brook to an 80-74 victory against Vermont on Saturday.
Top-seeded Stony Brook (26-6) had reached the tournament final four times in the last five seasons, including the last two years, and lost each time — each defeat seemingly more excruciating than the last. Last year, a 3-pointer with just seconds left by Albany kept the Seawolves out of the NCAAs.
"I think you have to go through last year, even though no one wants to hear it, to get to this place to not make these same kind of mistakes," Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell said.
From heartbreak has come resolve, the Seawolves say, and they needed it against Vermont. They were down 15 in the second half, but Warney's inside game was too much for the third-seeded Catamounts (21-13).
Carson Puriefoy contributed 23 points and some big free throws down the stretch for Stony Brook.
Instead of thinking, 'Oh, no, not again,' it was just the opposite from Stony Brook.
"My mindset was we're not going to let this happen," said Puriefoy, a senior like Warney who was down to his last shot at the NCAA Tournament.
Trae Bell-Haynes led Vermont with 17 points.
Vermont went up by 13 with 16:00 left in the second half when Bell-Haynes got a runner in the lane to bounce through. Pikiell called timeout and the crowd was stunned silent — for a few seconds.
Stony Brook's 4,100-seat on-campus arena still has the smell of new plastic seats two years after a major renovation, and it was jammed with red-clad fans. The Long Island school has invested heavily in athletics in recent years and residents of the suburbs that surround this campus, 60 miles east of Manhattan, have mostly embraced the attempt to bring big-time college sports to Suffolk County.
Stony Brook tied it at 61 with 6:19 left on a short jumper by Rayshaun McGrew, the other star senior. When Warney made a free throw with 5:59 left, Stony Brook led 62-61.
The Seawolves and their fans, so desperate to finally break through and play the main stage of March Madness, would have to endure another nervous finish.
Warney got free down the baseline and put the Seawolves up 73-70 with 2:01 left. Then it was Warney again, this time securing a rebound with one hand and flipping it back to make it 75-72.
Warney said Pikiell told him before the game he would need at least 20 shots from the three-time conference player of the year.
"I was like, I don't know if I can do that," said Warney, who was 18 for 22 from the field.
Two more free throws by Puriefoy with 46.4 second left made it a two-possession game, 77-72. Of course, it was Warney to all but finish it off, grabbing another rebound for an easy putback with 20 seconds left to make it 79-74.
"He played out of his mind," Vermont's Ethan O'Day said. "He did whatever he wanted."
And what he wanted to do when it was over was to bask in the moment.
"If they need more pictures," Warney said, "I'll take them."
Vermont: Forward Darren Payen took a hard fall when he was fouled going up for a fast-break dunk late in the first half. The 6-foot-8 Payen landed on his side and back, stayed down for a couple minutes but walked off slowly without assistance. Stony Brook's Roland Nyama was given a flagrant. Payen played the second half. .... The America East scoring record Warney matched belongs to former Vermont star Taylor Coppenrath, who scored 43 against Maine in the 2004 title game.
Stony Brook: Pikiell is a former UConn player and assistant coach, and former Huskies great Jim Calhoun was at Stony Brook to watch his protege.
Stony Brook it is off to the NCAA Tournament and the Seawolves don't care where they'll play. "We'll worry about next week later on down the road," Pikiell said.
If Vermont wants to play in the postseason, the NIT might not be an option. Maybe one of those other tournaments will invite the Catamounts.