By Ian Thomas

In years past, finding more than a couple thousand Stony Brook students who even know the names of more than one player on the basketball team was probably an exercise in futility. But this wasn’t a normal year, and as that number of fans packed a raucous a Stony Brook University Arena on March 18, things seemed to be different for once.

Water! -- Photo Courtesy of SBU Athletic Department

And even hundreds more were turned away for the program’s first postseason game in Division I, something that seemed nearly impossible just five years ago when coach Steve Pikiell headed a group that finished with a 4-24 record.

But by Pikiell installing a base of hard-working players and a never-say-die mentality that started to spread even outside the locker room, a victory here versus the number one seed Illinois Fighting Illini didn’t even seem too unrealistic.

Illinois certainly had the history, the Big Ten pedigree and NCAA Tournament aspirations that led the school to schedule Cirque du Soleil at their home stadium for the weekend, forcing the NIT first round game to be played at Stony Brook instead, but it was unclear if they had the same hunger as Stony Brook.

The Seawolves came out fired up, scoring the first seven points and trading the lead back and forth with the Fighting Illini for most of the first half, where they trailed by just two points when the buzzer rang.

Keying off of turnovers and putting up points in the paint despite lacking an obvious counter to the height of the Illinois frontcourt, Stony Brook kept up the pace and hoped to match that tempo after halftime.

But whether it was the size difference, or just the wear and tear of facing a much deeper and physical team than is typically found in the America East, the Seawolves started to fade as the second half began. The Fighting Illini opened with a 17-7 run, and despite a number of impressive plays by Chris Martin and Brian Dougher, the Seawolves couldn’t keep up.

As Illinois continued to clean up on the boards as Stony Brook searched for that big three point play that had carried the team through its school record 22 wins this year, the eventual writing was written on the wall. As the clock wound down, the Fighting Illini just stayed afloat, and finished with an eventual 76-66 victory.

However, not one of those four thousand fans likely left in disappointment, as the excitement on the court was nearly palpable.

“We can pretty much compete with anyone in the country,” said Dougher following the game. “We will miss the leadership of our seniors here, but the future is bright here.”

And that future will be tested next year, as expectations are sure to be higher than ever.

“This isn’t a lacrosse town anymore,” said Pikiell in the post-game press conference. “We’re trying to make it a basketball town.”

For that night, it certainly was, and if Pikiell has his way, there will be many more as the calendar turns to next fall.