Pretty, it was not. But LIU Brooklyn was able to get the job done in beating Central Connecticut State at the Steinberg Wellness Center Thursday night, 80-74, to keep their hopes at a top four finish alive for Saturday’s season finale.
LIU Brooklyn looked like they would pull away from CCSU at the start of the second half as they scored the first eight points to go along with the final seven points of the first half to build a fifteen-point lead which was their largest lead of the game.
But CCSU, whose head coach Howie Dickenman, is coaching in his final games as he is retiring from coaching at the end of the season, didn’t fold. Instead, they bombarded the Blackbirds with three-pointers which not only kept them in the game but gave them a chance to actually steal this game and destroy LIU’s hopes of moving up in NEC tournament seeding.
CCSU made 13 of 22 three-pointers, and an Austin Nehls three with 50 seconds remaining made it a three-point game before LIU made six straight late game free throws to ice the game and get out of the gym with a six-point win.
One big reason why LIU was able to stave off a badly timed home loss was the play of Iverson Fleming off the bench. The junior guard scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half making 6 of 8 shots including scoring eight straight points for the Blackbirds as CCSU were making a hard charge.
It hasn’t been the season Fleming was hoping for but he is starting to play the best basketball he has played since late November at the same time LIU is starting to finally hit their stride coming down the stretch of the season.
“My thing is just to bring energy, just pick my guys up when they need it.” said Fleming. “Most importantly, we are just trying to get momentum going heading into the playoffs, just trying to play as team and keep attacking and staying together.”
“He has an up-and-down year obviously. He struggled shooting the basketball.” said Perri of Fleming. “He is making better decisions. He is not settling for deep threes. He is taking that pull-up which he really exceptional at. So I think you’ve seen his percentages go up and his confidence go up. It’s perfect timing with playoff time coming and it gives us an extra threat off the bench.”
LIU also got a quality performance from redshirt sophomore Nura Zanna who has come on for the Blackbirds down the stretch. Zanna used a solid first half, shooting 4 of 5 from the floor with nine points, in finishing with 12 points and seven rebounds.
Zanna has turned a corner in his play since the Wagner win at home February 11th which was his best game of the season so far. He is averaging 11.6 points per game over his last five games including this game. His upward trend in his play couldn’t have come at a better time for Perri.
“I think you’ve seen the maturation of Nura Zanna.” said Perri. “Since the Wagner game, he has been great. He has been that piece, he has been putting pressure on teams. He is finishing around the basket and his focus is great so we are really happy with him. I think he has made a huge difference. That stretch in which we started to play much, much better, he is a big reason why.”
CCSU also had four players finish in double figures with sophomore guard Kevin Seymour going off for a career-high 22 points. Seymour entered the game shooting 4 for 18 from three for the season, he went 5 for 8 from three in this game. Senior Brandon Pell, in his final game versus LIU, got his 15th double-double of the season and tenth straight with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Freshman Austin Nehls finished with 12 on four three-pointers and junior JJ Cratit finished with ten points.
LIU got a team-high 20 points from Martin Hermannsson, his sixth 20-plus scoring game in his last nine games. He also had six assists and five boards. Joel Hernandez, who has had a great junior year for LIU, finished with 16 points. Jerome Frink finished with just seven points but did grab ten rebounds. It was his second single-digit scoring game in his last three games. Aakim Saintil dished out eight assists with zero turnovers to go along with six points.
LIU struggled from three, as they went 1 for 11 from downtown. They doubled up on free throw attempts on CCSU, 18 to 9. Also, LIU did a great job preventing turnovers as they committed just five in the game while CCSU made fourteen. LIU also got eleven steals to CCSU’s one.
CCSU head coach Howie Dickenman coached in his final game at LIU as he wraps up his 20th and final season at the school on Saturday before beginning his retirement. Jack Perri, who has been around the NEC for half of Dickenman’s tenure as an both an assistant and head coach at LIU, surprise the retiring coach before the game with a parting retirement gift, what else but a cheesecake from the famous Junior’s across the street from campus. Perri holds Dickenman, the elder statesman of the NEC head coaches, in high regard for all the battle LIU and CCSU had through the years.
“All these years, especially when they had those great teams, they were so tough. They were physically tough. They were so well-coached. He would always make the right adjustments during a game. I know he had a tough last few years with some injuries and some things that he had to deal with but he is such a professional. He is a great person on the road. He talks to everybody and he is always such a positive person. He gave so much to this league and so much credibility to the league with the ways his teams played. Obviously, I wish him the best of luck.”
With the victory, LIU moves to 9-8 in the NEC with one game remaining, at home against Bryant Saturday afternoon. LIU will head into the regular season finale as the 6-seed.
Here is how the NEC standings looks going into Saturday’s finale:
Wagner beat SFU on Thursday so they officially clinched the best overall record in the NEC and will be the 1-seed and have home-court advantage throughout their stay in the NEC tournament. FDU, St. Francis Brooklyn, Mount St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart are all tied at 10-7. LIU Brooklyn and SFU follow at 9-8 and Robert Morris with their win against Sacred Heart remain a game back of LIU at 8-9.
As for LIU, here is what we know at the moment. By virtue of FDU and St. Francis Brooklyn both winning Thursday night, the best LIU can hope for now is to get the four-seed. LIU will need to win against Bryant Saturday and hope for a scenario where they can win out the tiebreaker with all the 10-8 teams. I hope by tomorrow I will have a better idea of what those scenarios are that LIU will need to get to that four-seed and what other possible scenarios LIU could end up with based on what could happen on what will be a wild final Saturday of NEC play.
The only thing LIU can control and worry about is the game on Saturday and getting ready for Bryant which just like on Thursday night, they are going to have to win or else face a possibility that they could end up as a eight-seed and have to face top-seeded Wagner in Staten Island in the first round on Wednesday.
“That is all we can do.” said Perri. “We’ll prepare for Bryant and hopefully have some success on Saturday and then get ready for the (NEC) tournament.”
“We got one more home game for the regular season against Bryant and we going to try and come out and do the same thing.” said Fleming. “We don’t want to going into the playoffs with a loss so we’re just trying to get some momentum.”
If RMU wins on Saturday, it will guarantee all eight teams will go into the NEC tournament with a .500 or better record. It sets up what will be a thrilling and scoreboard watching filled Saturday. It could end up being a wild, tiebreaker filled finish for seeding jockeying. It doesn’t get too much better than this.