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Stony Brook women’s basketball primed to make strong first impression in CAA

Several Stony Brook women’s basketball players hustling back on defense in an exhibition against Adelphi on Nov. 3. The Seawolves are picked to be one of the best teams in the CAA this season. TIM GIORLANDO/THE STATESMAN

A late season collapse derailed the Stony Brook women’s basketball team’s postseason hopes last year. In the 2022-23 season, the Seawolves hope to learn from last year’s mistakes by playing a new brand of basketball that allows their star players to flourish on both sides of the ball.

Last season was business as usual for the Seawolves, as they finished with an impressive 23-6 overall record and a 14-4 conference record. 

However, the year finished in uncharacteristic fashion. Having already been banned from the America East postseason tournament, the team lost its final two regular season games and allowed Maine to pass them in the standings for the regular season title. This ultimately put them out of contention for the NCAA Tournament. The season came to an official end in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) when the Seawolves fell to the Virginia Commonwealth Rams in the first round, 56-48.

“I think it’s really hard for a group of 18-to-23-year-olds to continuously go out and work as hard as they can knowing that something has been taken away from them,” head coach Ashley Langford said in an interview with The Statesman. 

In year two of the Langford era, the Seawolves find themselves in a new conference: the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). Expectations remain high, as Stony Brook ranked third in the CAA preseason poll of rival head coaches. Langford is already familiar with the conference, having previously served as an assistant coach at James Madison University, a former member of the CAA. 

“I think it’s definitely an advantage just for me personally, just knowing what to expect being in those environments before,” Langford said. “I played in most of those arenas. Understanding what it’s like on a Friday, Sunday, every day in conference play. I think that gives us a little bit of an advantage.” 

One challenge the Seawolves will have to overcome is the overturn of their roster, as several key contributors to last year’s team are now gone. Earlette Scott, India Pagan and Leighah-Amori Wool were all regular starters who graduated in the spring. The trio combined to score over 45% of the team’s points last season.

The bench is suffering a major loss as well with the departure of McKenzie Bushee. Bushee provided a spark off the bench for much of her career, and in 2021 she was named America East Sixth Player of the Year

Despite the losses, Langford is still confident in her team’s abilities and feels the team still has the size needed to compete. 

This year’s team will feature seven newcomers, including several transfers like guard Daishai “Dai Dai” Almond, forward Sherese Pittman and guard Shamarla King. Six players will return from last year’s team, including star guards Annie Warren and Gigi Gonzalez. Warren was a First Team All-Conference selection last year, while Gonzalez was third in the conference in assists. 

Look for forwards Nairimar Vargas-Reyes and Pittman to step up and try to fill the void left by Pagan and Wool. Vargas-Reyes stands at six feet tall, while Pittman is 6-foot-2. Vargas-Reyes was the America East’s ninth-leading rebounder last season as a role player. Both are primed to play a bigger role for the Seawolves this season, something Langford is excited about.

“That length, that athleticism, the jumping ability are all exciting for me,” Langford said. She feels that her 13 players mesh well together. 

“I think we brought in seven newcomers that are really good,” Langford said. “With a mix of our six returners, we’ve got really good players coming back.”

This group allows Stony Brook to be more versatile and allows for all types of lineups to be put on the court. Due to the shapeup around the roster, the Seawolves may have to change their strategy. 

“We’re just going to play a little different brand of basketball this year,” Langford said. “That’s what you do every year, you have to adapt to your personnel and put yourself into a position to win.” 

The diversity of lineups and play styles will pose a challenge to anyone the Seawolves go up against. Expect Stony Brook to play a ton of positionless basketball as opposed to a more traditional lineup.

“We’ve got a lot of versatility,” Langford said. “There’s five positions out there, but we’re going to play more positionless basketball.”

This year’s team will be centered around its guards, with Warren and Gonzalez both primed to play crucial roles in the team’s offense. It all starts with Warren, who can expect an even bigger role on offense this season. Langford is confident in Warren’s ability to be the top option and feels Warren has the tools to be an offensive weapon for the Seawolves.​​​​​​ 

Gonzalez will likely continue to serve as the team’s primary facilitator, as she led the team in assists a year ago. The backcourt pairing of Warren and Gonzalez makes the Seawolves a real threat in the CAA.

The conference has already seemed to take notice of the duo, as both guards were given preseason honors. Warren was named to the Preseason All-CAA Second Team, while Gonzalez received an honorable mention.

Almond will likely play a similar role to Gonzalez off the bench, as she averaged 3.9 assists per game over her last three seasons with Southern Mississippi. Guards Kelis Corley and Erin Turral will see playing time off the bench too, and can slide right into the starting lineup if needed.  

The influx of guards provides Langford with a ton of versatility and lineup options, something she is going to use as an advantage over opponents.

“You’ll keep hearing me say versatility,” Langford said. “That’s what we’re going to do this year is be a lot more versatile. You’re going to see players in different positions that are maybe a little unconventional, but it will be to our advantage.” 

On the offensive side of things, expect this year’s team to play a different style compared to years past. Last year’s offense averaged a conference-best 67.4 points per game, but a large portion of those points came inside the paint.

Without Pagan and Wool at their disposal, expect the Seawolves to play a more perimeter-based offense. 

“There’s a lot of different ways to win,” Langford said. “Last year, we were a lot more inside than outside. Maybe this year, we’re a little more perimeter guard-oriented.” 

A challenge the offense might face is shooting the three ball. Outside of Warren and Corley, there is not currently a consistent shooter the team can turn to. Wool’s departure will leave a void in the offense, as she shot a team-best 41% from behind the arc last season. The combination of Warren, Corley and Wool totaled 94 of the team’s 153 three-pointers on the season.

The Stony Brook program is known for its suffocating defense that sees defenders swarm the ball, create turnovers, force bad shots and secure rebounds. Last year’s team continued the trend by boasting the 32nd-best defense in the country out of 348 teams, surrendering just 56.5 points per game. That will remain a key for the Seawolves and is something they take great pride in.

“Our identities are that we defend, we rebound and we run,” Langford said. “I’m excited about that.” 

A major focus of this year’s team is making sure they peak at the right time, as last year’s collapse proved costly. Langford wants the team to focus on getting better every day and leave the past behind them. 

“We break up our seasons by quarters,” Langford said. “So we’re really focusing on the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter, just like a game. Just staying in the moment and trying to be the very best there. I think that’s how you continuously improve every day. Then you turn around in March and you’re like ‘Alright, we’re playing our best basketball right now.’”

Stony Brook will open its 2022-23 season on the road against Syracuse on Monday, Nov. 7 at 3:30 p.m. The Seawolves will look to make good on their high expectations this year while aiming to punch a ticket to March Madness.

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