The LIU Brooklyn men’s basketball team made Northeast Conference history on Tuesday night. They did what many people said they had virtually no shot at doing back in December and January. They completed the original mission they started out the season with. They won back-to-back-to-back NEC championships. LIU defeated Mount St. Mary’s 91-70 to earn their third consecutive bid into the NCAA Tournament and in the process becoming the first NEC team ever to three-peat.
Mount St. Mary’s came out swinging and they looked very much like the team that already had two upset wins in this NEC tournament. They came out the gate guns blazing, knocking down threes to start the game as if they were layups. Sam Prescott, in particularly was on fire, hitting on his first four threes. The Mount’s hot shooting as well as solid defense had them ahead by as much as eight points, eight minutes into the game.
LIU would settle down to tie it up at 25, thanks in part to the hot start of senior C.J. Garner but then came one of the pivotal points of the game. NEC Player of the Year Jamal Olasewere picked up his second personal foul with 8:52 to go in the first half with LIU down three. This could have been dangerous for the Blackbirds but up stepped Kenny Onyechi and he played solidly in the first half with 8 points and 4 rebounds in 10 minutes. The Blackbirds, in what would be a precursor to the second half, ended the first half scoring the last six points to take a four point lead to the locker room.
Another pivotal move was made by LIU head coach Jack Perri, switching from man-to-man defense and going to a 2-3 zone after Olasewere picked up his second personal foul. The change in defense help slow down the three-point barrage the Mount was having and pretty much took away their outside game from that point on. Perri asked C.J. Garner at the half if they should stay in the 2-3 zone or go back to man-to-man defense. Garner told Perri, ” ‘We want (zone).’ The way we played in it, we want to stay in it. I trust him so much. That is obviously why we did it and it worked.” said Perri.
LIU started the second half on fire. Led by seniors Garner and Olasewere, LIU would start the half on a 17-6 run to give themselves a 15-point lead and essentially put this game away. They would get the lead as high as 24 points and would end up coasting to a 21-point win and a third straight NEC championship.
“This means so much to our program. We talked about it when I first got the job, trying to do this for a third time in a row with this group and be the best ever.” said a jubilent LIU head coach Jack Perri in the postgame press conference. “They were not going to let anything else happen besides winning this third one.”
C.J. Garner was a man possessed this entire NEC tournament. It all started on Senior Night when he went off for his then career-high 30 points and he carried that momentum in this tournament. He finished this game with a career-high 31 points and was named 2013 NEC Tournament MVP. Deservedly so. Garner averaged 28 points per game in this tournament and shot an incredible 69% (31-49). He was unstoppable this entire tournament in the open floor. When he wasn’t running, he was killing teams with his mid-range jump shot which was near automatic. This was one of the best tournament performances for any Blackbird player that I have ever seen. He was just that dominant. “He was not going to let nothing get in his way of winning a third championship.” said Perri of Garner’s extraordinary play throughout this NEC tournament. “He’s had it. He’s had it in him all along. He hasn’t had to do it. When you have Julian, Jason and Jamal, he hasn’t had to do it. He did it when he needed to do it but again I was like more like everybody can do it at different times. He was always the guy that never got the recognition and I’m glad that he finally got it.” Garner said after the game, “It is just great to go out and win it. I think it was the doubt factor people had with Julian going down and the suspensions and really fighting through the adversity.”
Olasewere scored 11 of his 15 points in that put-away second half. He also grabbed 10 rebounds, 9 of them in the second half to finish with his 12th double-double of the season. Jason Brickman scored seven points and dished out eight assists and committed only three turnovers. In fact, LIU only committed 13 turnovers against the Mount Mayhem press. The work they put into breaking the press after the 27 turnovers they had at Wagner really paid off.
Another player playing his best basketball as his career is winding down is senior Kenny Onyechi. He had a great championship game with 11 points and 7 rebounds. He averaged 7.3 ppg and 7 rpg in this year’s NEC tournament in just under 20 minutes of play per game. Gerrell Martin off the bench came up huge. He saved one of his best games of the season for this game. He finished with 12 points and a career-high tying 6 rebounds.
“I’m so proud of them for the character they showed throughout the year.” said Perri of his team. “All the adversity that we hit. For them to do what they did after all that shows great character. Leadership, unbelievable. Substance as men, it was remarkable. I wasn’t sure which way it would go when we lost six in a row but obviously these guys showed me what they’re made of.”
“We persevered.” said Jamal Olasewere. “We did what we had to do for the guys that came before us like Kyle (Johnson) and Dave (David Hicks). We knew this one was personal. We knew what we had to do. We knew we wanted to go out on the same note they went out and we did.”
The Blackbirds shot a lights-out 61% from the field and scored 1.28 points per possession (ppp) and held the Mount to 0.98 ppp, a stat that was pivotal to LIU’s success since the Mount had not won a game versus an NEC team scoring less than 1.0 ppp. They held the Mount to just under 40% shooting and after that hot three-point start, the Mount shot just 9 for 31 from three (29%). The 2-3 zone was the key.
Sam Prescott scored 19 for the Mount. NEC Rookie of the Year Shivaughn Wiggins scored 13. Junior guard Rashad Whack had a rough shooting night. He was just 3 of 15 from the field and 3 of 11 from three for 10 points. Julian Norfleet started this game and showed no ill-effect of the ankle injury he picked up during their game vs RMU on Saturday. He picked up a couple of quick fouls early but was kept in the game and didn’t foul again in the first half. He also didn’t have a good shooting night going 4 of 12 for 10 points. Forward Kristijian Krajina scored 12. The Mount will be back next season as they graduate just two seniors off their roster. But tonight belonged to the Blackbirds.
We now wait and see for Selection Sunday and see when and where LIU Brooklyn will play next. Right now, it is looking like LIU will end up playing in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio on either Tuesday or Wednesday next week. LIU’s RPI is currently 186 which isn’t very good and their strength of schedule this season is 298, which is also not very good. Add on the losses this season to teams like Lamar, Morehead State, and St. Peter’s in non-conference play and it will be hard for LIU to avoid another #16 seed with having to play an extra game just to get themselves into the main field of 64.
Nonetheless, the Blackbirds are in the NCAA Tournament and depending on their First Four opponent, may have a chance of winning a NCAA tournament game for the first time in this three-year run to the Big Dance and then could look to make history once again to possibly be the first #16 seed to ever beat a #1 seed in the NCAAs. Hey, you never know. First things first, Selection Sunday.
Congratulations are in order to LIU Brooklyn head coach Jack Perri and his coaching staff for winning an NEC championship in his first season as head coach and doing it under at times difficult circumstances. I asked Perri if this was the sweetest of three for him. “For me personally, yes. As the leader of the group and having dealt with all that we dealt with that this is definitely the sweetest out of the three.”
Congrats to the 5 LIU seniors who will forever be remembered as the NEC’s first ever three-peat champs. Congrats to Jason Brickman for making it three for three in his three years at LIU. Brickman and hopefully Julian Boyd will be going for the unprecedented four in a row next season. Congrats also to the three first-time NEC champs in Khalil Murphy, E.J. Reed and D.J. Griggs.
Congratulations to the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds. Winning a third straight championship in a one-bid conference like the NEC is no small feat. This was a big accomplishment and they should be very proud of themselves for the season they had. Those guys did the improbable and for that they will always be remembered.
Enjoy the NCAAs. You guys earned it!