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Defensive battle ahead for Arizona and Stony Brook in first round of NCAA Tournament

Get to know the Seawolves

Hailey Zeise
Photo courtesy Stony Brook Athletics

Listening to a Stony Brook press conference might lead you to believe that you had stumbled into Arizona’s Zoom by mistake. Words and phrases like “defense” and “our 3-point shooting is not as good as we would like it to be” pop up.

Many of the same strengths and concerns highlighted by Arizona head coach Adia Barnes all season about the Wildcats were echoed in Stony Brook’s Caroline McCombs’ comments about the Seawolves.

“Our defense has always been our identity since I took over as the head coach,” said McCombs, whose team will face Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday. “We say our defense tells us if we win, our offense tells us by how much. You can’t control if the ball’s always going to go in the basket.”

It is an identity that the players take seriously and revel in.

“It’s grimy,” senior forward Hailey Zeise said. “It doesn’t take as much talent. It’s a lot of hard work, it’s a lot of discipline, and I think it’s just the things that we really pride ourselves in here at Stony Brook. I’ve always just been a fan of it and it’s why I love Stony Brook so much. It is their identity with their defensive presence and so we just like grinded it out, trying to be tougher than the other team. We love being competitive and I think defense really gives us that edge.”

Offensively, the Seawolves are a balanced team. They have three players averaging around 10 points per game. Point guard Asiah Dingle leads the team at 11.7 PPG, while fellow guard Anastasia Warren comes in with 11.1 PPG. They are joined by forward India Pagan at 9.4 PPG.

Rebounding is also a by-committee endeavor. Pagan leads the team with 5.2 RPG. She is closely followed by reserve guard Earlette Scott with 5.0 RPG, but Stony Brook has four players averaging at least four rebounds per game.

Her Hoop Stats agrees that defense is the calling card of both teams. The Wildcats are ranked the No. 9 defense in Division I by the stats service while the Seawolves are at No. 23.

The major gap comes on the offensive end of the floor. For all of the consternation about Arizona’s offense, the team still ranks No. 82 on offense compared to No. 163 for Stony Brook.

The other major difference is level of competition. Stony Brook only played one major conference team this season, a 50-39 defeat at the hands of then-No. 23 Syracuse. But McCombs believes that their early-season game against Fordham also helped prepare them for a higher level of competition.

The two teams have something else in common, though. Both have been integrating new players this season. In addition to the freshman class, Arizona added transfers Bendu Yeaney and Trinity Baptiste into its group of starters and Shaina Pellington off the bench.

Stony Brook has an even larger group of transfers and at even more critical positions. Scott arrived this year after playing two seasons at Providence. Former Western Michigan starter Leighah-Amori Wool and Scott both average 6.1 PPG in their first season with the Seawolves. They also added Nairimar Vargas-Reyes from Florida Southwestern State.

The biggest test was integrating a new point guard. Dingle arrived this year after two seasons at Kent State. She has become the team’s leader in scoring, steals and assists and is second in minutes played. Her 3.6 APG and 1.8 SPG both rank in the 93rd percentile according to Her Hoop Stats, although she has struggled with turnovers at 3.4 per game.

Trying to get everyone on the same page while in the middle of the pandemic was a challenge, but it is one they believe they have conquered.

“I think we all have learned throughout this season and in a short amount of time really because we’ve only had 20 games in the season versus 30,” Zeise said. “I think we’ve really done a great job of adapting to our strengths. Our point guard, Asiah Dingle, she’s new this year to our team, but I really think that she’s stepped up in her role. And I think we’re really all finally learning how to play with her, play together. And she’s learning how to play with us, where to get our post players the ball, where to make the reads in our transition. I think that she’s been really effective for us.”

McCombs believes the peculiarities of the season also affected the team’s offense.

“Our 3-point shooting isn’t as good as we would like it to be,” she said. “It has been better in years past. I think some of that is just not having been able to get in the gym all summer exactly like we wanted to with that preseason. No excuses, but just not having that type of hands on opportunities with our players.”

The biggest commonality between the two teams? Both are experiencing the tournament for the first time as a group. Arizona has not been to the NCAA Tournament in 16 years. Stony Brook is making its first appearance in program history.

Aari McDonald made her feelings about that known via a letter on The Player’s Tribune. Some of those feelings were echoed by Stony Brook.

“Just so rewarding for the hard work and perseverance,” McCombs said about watching her players clinch their berth. “It’s been seven years but just these last two years, just really seeing the growth of this program and all the things that we talked about and the buy-in and having a player-led team. You know, just those things matter, and that’s when they believe in it and that’s when it works. I can stand up and give pep talks and try to motivate but when it comes from within, which I feel like we are, they’re where they believe in it, they’re talking about it. They’re not just calling each other out and holding each other accountable, but they’re calling each other up to a higher standard and a different type of a level. And that’s what I know. You know we’re being successful teaching the right things because they’re leading the team.”