A stormed court, a silent crowd and a drenched visitors’ locker room only means one thing in March. For the first time since the program reached the Big Dance 10 years ago, the seventh-seeded Binghamton men’s basketball team advanced to the conference semifinals after defeating the second-seeded Stony Brook Seawolves, 78-72. BU’s victory kept its season alive and sets up a semifinal match at Vermont in the upcoming round of the America East (AE) postseason.
Despite seven seeds sporting a dismal 2-31 all-time record against two seeds, Binghamton (10-22, 5-11 AE) defied the odds as the overwhelming underdog. The Bearcats rode an 18-point lead into halftime behind a trio that featured freshman guard Sam Sessoms, who at that point had a game-high 14 points, graduate student guard J.C. Show and senior forward Caleb Stewart. The three combined for 35 of Binghamton’s 43 points, with 18 coming from long range in the first half alone.
“We have a special kid [Sessoms] with the ball in his hands and we surrounded him with seniors,” said BU head coach Tommy Dempsey. “He’s a handful. That’s the best defensive team in the league — they throw length and athleticism at him and they really couldn’t keep him under control.”
Not only did the Bearcats dominate offensively in the first 20 minutes, but they also stifled Stony Brook (24-8, 12-4 AE) on the defensive end. BU held a team that had votes in the national Men’s Mid-Major Top 25 poll to just 32 percent shooting from the field and 11 percent from deep. Most importantly, Binghamton kept redshirt junior guard Akwasi Yeboah in check. Despite averaging 16.6 points per game, BU forced him into 1-of-8 shooting from the field at the break.
While the first period was undeniably all Binghamton, the Seawolves responded fiercely in the second half to keep everyone watching on the edge of their seats. Sophomore forward Elijah Olaniyi, who had a game-high 27 points, sparked a comeback effort that helped trim a once 24-point deficit to only three points with 48 seconds remaining.
In addition to SBU’s ability to turn it on offensively, its persistence in sticking with a full-court press gave the Bearcats a great deal of trouble late in the contest. Stony Brook remained very much in the game as it forced 11 Binghamton turnovers in the second half, eight of which were steals.
Even though BU was able to withstand the pressure both inbounding and bringing up the ball past half court, the team seemed like its own worst enemy in the final minutes. The Bearcats shot a devastating 50 percent clip from the charity stripe, with Sessoms missing four and graduate student forward Chancellor Barnard off the mark on two at the most critical point in the game.
“If we made some free throws, I thought we would’ve got out of here fairly comfortably,” Dempsey said. “What held us together was that we had four seniors that didn’t want to take their uniforms off. They just kept fighting and scrapping — it’s a big win for our program. We’re a program in search of a signature win.”
Although the team struggled from the line, Binghamton ultimately hung on in a nail-biter to take the match. The aforementioned trio finished the game accounting for 61 of BU’s 78 points, with Sessoms leading the way, scoring a team-high 26.
“Even though they overwhelmed us at our place a couple of weeks ago, it was just a night where we didn’t play well,” Dempsey said. “If you don’t play well against those guys, you have no chance. Tonight, they bullied us around and we punched the bully back early in the game, and I thought our guys settled in and got confidence as the game went on.”
For Binghamton, the victory marked the first time since 2012 that the program captured a postseason win. The Bearcats had faltered in six consecutive playoff matches, yet they managed to outlast a team that had defeated them 19 times in the previous 21 meetings.
Up next for BU is a tough matchup with the No. 1 Catamounts, who recently downed Maine to advance to the second round. Vermont (25-6, 14-2 AE) swept the season series against Binghamton by 28 and six points in the two meetings, respectively. Potential NBA prospect junior forward Anthony Lamb racked up 34 points in UVM’s win over the No. 8 Black Bears.
The Bearcats’ AE showdown against the Catamounts in the conference semifinals is slated for Tuesday, March 12 at 7 p.m from the Roy L. Patrick Gymnasium in Burlington, Vermont.