You can describe this game in many different ways. It was a 12-round heavyweight battle. It was a war of attrition. It was a slugfest. Whatever way you want to describe the 40 minutes of intense college basketball that was played at the Wellness Center at LIU Brooklyn on Wednesday night, if you were fortunate to be among the 1006 people in attendance for this game, you saw a heck of a basketball game.
Once again, one of LIU’s smallest player, 5’10” senior guard C.J. Garner, came up the biggest especially in crunch time as LIU Brooklyn survived and advanced through to the semifinal round of the NEC tournament with a dramatic 91-83 win. Garner matched his career-high 30 points for the second-straight time in successive games against Quinnipiac.
The Blackbirds, for the second successive game against the Bobcats, had to make a second-half comeback. This time, they added more dramatic effect by going down by 9 with under eight minutes left to play and their newly-announced NEC Player of the Year Jamal Olasewere, watching most of it from the bench in foul trouble.
LIU head coach Jack Perri had a big decision to make past the midway point of the second half. Either play Olasewere with four fouls as time started ticking away with LIU down or keep buying time and hope his guys can make a run before getting Olasewere back in. With 6:17 to go and LIU down 7, Perri decided he waited long enough and put Olasewere in with his four fouls. It immediately paid off with a bucket and a foul to get within four and start a 12-3 run for LIU to take back the lead at 80-78 with four minutes left. Yet after getting back the lead, it was at this point where Olasewere fouled out trying to draw on offensive foul on Quinnipiac’s Shaq Shannon on a baseline drive.
In a year where next man up has had to step up for LIU, C.J. Garner answered the call. With Olasewere only being able to play ten second-half minutes, it was Garner with grea jump shooting from both inside and outside the arc as well as his uncanny ability to get to the basket which propelled the Blackbirds to play another game on Saturday. Garner scored 18 of his 30 points in the second half. “Coach (Perri) told me that they were playing off me, so he told me to just be aggressive, shoot my shots.” said Garner. “I was able to not shoot all threes but move up a little bit and get the mid-range. I was really feeling it from there. It just felt good to be able to get going especially with Jamal out. It was a little bit nerve-wrecking…With Jamal out and not having Julian (Boyd), I have to step up. I have to be somebody that the rest of the team can depend on. I like these moments like this because it really lets me show my game.”
It was once again the two LIU seniors who refused to see what might possibly be their final ever home game end in a loss. Garner’s 30 and Olasewere’s 20 are why LIU will be playing again on Saturday afternoon. These two made sure they would play in at least one more game in an LIU Brooklyn uniform. “The resiliency of this group was the calling card.” said Perri in the postgame press conference. “They have been like that all year especially since January, since Julian (Boyd) got hurt, our guys have stepped up and these two guys have been the main guys who have done it all year.”
This game was definitely a battle of attrition as six players fouled out, two on LIU (Reed and Olasewere) and four on Quinnipiac (Azotam, Hearst, Johnson, and Drame). The refs called a combined 53 fouls in this game, 34 of them were called in the second half. The refs called this game extremely tight. You knew from the offset this one was going to be physical as Ike Azotam and Jamal Olasewere were jocking each other hard for position on the underneath the Quinnipiac end of the basket. A couple of times, the refs had to talk to both of them to cool it. At one point in the second half, on a offensive foul call on Jason Brickman thanks to a nice sell job by Quinnipiac’s Dave Johnson, coach Jack Perri took his jacket off and threw it towards his chair in anger. Fair to say, neither coach was too thrilled with the officiating in this one.
If it wasn’t for Garner’s heroic, this game would have been remembered for how dominate Quinnipiac’s Ousmane Drame was. He finished with 23 points on 8 of 15 shooting. In the last two games vs LIU, he was an unstoppable force for the Bobcats. He scored 44 combined points in the two games going 15 of 25. Yet, it was Drame finally going cold from the free throw line in the second half, with an assist from the raucous LIU home crowd, that helped LIU get closer and then take the lead before sealing it at the free throw line themselves late in the game.
One unsung hero for the Blackbirds was the play of senior forward Kenny Onyechi. His stats won’t blow you away (5 points, 6 rebounds, 2-3 FG, 1-4 FT, 2 blocks, 18 mins) but with Olasewere out for a good portion of that second half, Onyechi played a huge 15 second-half minutes and stabilized the interior on defense against mostly Drame and got a couple of big time blocks in crunch time. More importantly, he didn’t foul out which ended up being huge since LIU was running out of options for size on the bench. Only sparingly-used Khalil Murphy remained so you got to give Onyechi a ton of credit for playing well in this one when LIU REALLY needed it. “He did a great job.” said Perri regarding Onyechi. “He had a few good blocks obviously. Jason (Brickman) found him on that play down the stretch. He bangs that down with a dunk. He make a huge free throw also. That was a huge free throw. Kenny has done a much better job at the foul line, he was only 1 for 4 in this game but he hit a huge one I think it was to tie it or go up one, one or the other. But I was proud of Kenny’s effort. As a senior, he really stepped up.”
Garner and Olasewere gave credit to the LIU home crowd especially in the second half, in which the WRAC was rocking. “We had a great crowd tonight.” said Garner. “We really played off the energy especially when we got the lead back and we were tying it up. They really got into it. We really feed off of that and I think that really helped us tonight.” “The crowd was like our sixth man on the court….We give credit to them.” said Olasewere.
For Quinnipiac, beyond Drame and Azotam, they got 14 from Evan Conti and 10 from Jamee Jackson in his last game for the Bobcats. Zaid Hearst and Dave Johnson who combined for 42 points in the game last Saturday, scored only a combined 11 points in this one. Quinnipiac scored 1.1 points per possession (76 possessions) while LIU scored 1.28 points per possession (71 possessions). LIU shot 50% in this game and hit 40% (8-20) from three. LIU was 72.5% from the free throw line (29-40) but made most of the important ones when it really counted. Quinnipiac shot 41% and were 6-13 from three. The Bobcats missed ten free throws (21-31) with Drame going 7-14 himself.
For LIU Brooklyn, after the 50 points from Garner and Olasewere, Brandon Thompson scored 13, Jason Brickman finished with 10 points and 7 assists.
Thankfully, this was LIU’s and Quinnipiac’s last ever meeting as conference foes since Quinnipiac will be heading to play in the MAAC conference next season.
In other NEC games on Wednesday night, #1 seed Robert Morris defeated #8 seed St. Francis Brooklyn, 75-57. They will take on the #5 seed Mount St. Mary’s as they upset #4 Bryant on the road, 75-69. Mount St. Mary’s will play at Robert Morris at 2:30pm on Saturday. LIU will head back to Staten Island to take on Wagner in a rematch of the Oscar night ESPNU thriller. #3 seed Wagner defeated #7 seed Central Connecticut State, 72-50. The game will be played at noon on Saturday. LIU fans who want to purchase tickets can do so through Wagner Athletics. Click here for more information. I wouldn’t wait too long to get tickets. It will likely sell out again. It will likely be another barnburner as the last one was. Take these two days to rest up and get ready for the roller coaster ride all over again on Saturday.