LIU Brooklyn knew they were not in for an easy task going into the Spiro Sports Center Saturday afternoon. Facing the number one-seeded Wagner Seahawks, the team LIU had beaten twice during the regular season and looking for a third win in the same season and a second win out in Staten Island, the Blackbirds were looking for their second straight upset in the NEC Tournament. But a terrible second half in which LIU were outscored by twenty, erased a four-point LIU halftime lead and eliminated LIU Brooklyn from going after their sixth NEC tournament championship with a 81-65 defeat to Wagner and ending their season.
Wagner, who had not lost since losing to LIU Brooklyn at the Steinberg Wellness Center back on February 11th, looked primed for being LIU’s second straight upset victim in the first half. LIU got off to a quick five-point lead three minutes into the game. Nura Zanna, who has given Wagner plenty of problems in three of his first four meetings against them, started the game off strong once again with a quick six points in the opening six minutes.
LIU took as much as a six point lead in the first half in front of a very loud and raucous crowd of 1,814 fans at the Spiro Sports Center before Wagner cut it to four at the break.
A pair of Joel Hernandez free throws, gave LIU a five-point lead with sixteen minutes to go and after that, it was all Wagner.
Wagner tighten the screws on LIU on the defensive end and went to work offensively, mainly sparked by junior guard Michael Carey, who played one of the best games of his career, and sophomore guard Romone Saunders. Between these two guys, they scored 30 of Wagner’s final 45 points as they outscored LIU by 21 in the final sixteen minutes of the game to turn a tight game into a laughter and put themselves into the NEC Championship game with a chance to win their first NEC tournament title since 2002.
“It was a tale of two halves.” said Perri. “They are the number one team for a reason and they did a really good job of defending us. They were very fast. Their guards did a really good job. They ended up turning us over some. They got out in transition and we couldn’t contain them off the bounce. We couldn’t contain them off the dribble and one thing that we talk about is not fouling and Wagner is not a great team in getting fouled and they took 31 free throws which was just too much and they ended up hurting us on the glass as well. They completed outplayed us in the second half and they earned the win. Great job by them.”
“Wagner is one of the best teams if not the best defensive team in the conference so we know they were going to play hard every second on defense.” said Joel Hernandez. “So we know we got to play physical, we got to rebound take care of the ball, stuff like that.”
Wagner got a double-double from Michael Carey who finished with a career-high 28 points and grabbed ten rebounds.
“The kid Carey was tremendous.” said Perri. “I voted for him for all-league first team. The kid is relentless on the glass. Most of his points are hustle points in transition and offensive rebounding and attacking. Those are the kind of guys that help you win.”
Romone Saunders scored 18 points, 16 points coming in the second half. Corey Henson finished with 12 points. Wagner moves on to Tuesday’s NEC Championship game to face the two-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson Knights who defeated Mount St. Mary’s at home 80-75 to also advance to the final. KenPom has Wagner enlisted as a ten-point favorite at home against FDU.
“I have to give LIU a lot of credit. A team we struggled with all season. Very talented and hard playing.” said Wagner head coach Bashir Mason. “I coached my guys hard but I didn’t know how we were going to match up against them. I think they present a ton of problems for us. But our guys, we fought, we battled.”
The loss for LIU Brooklyn likely ends their season at 16-15. With LIU’s RPI ranking currently at 263, the likelihood of postseason play is very minimal.
Joel Hernandez, who finished off a breakout junior season very strongly, finished with 19 points and seven rebounds. Jerome Frink finished with 14 points and eight boards but shot 5 for 14 from the field. Nura Zanna finished with 11 points. Martin Hermannsson, who was guarded tightly all game long by the Wagner defense, finished with just 9 points on 7 shot attempts. Aakim Saintil, who did not play well in both games of the NEC tournament and finished off the season rather poorly, scored just five points and one assist with four turnovers. Iverson Fleming couldn’t repeat the magic of his NEC quarterfinal performance against Sacred Heart as he went scoreless, missing all five of his shots in 25 minutes.
Now begins the long offseason for Jack Perri and his Blackbirds.
LIU Brooklyn improved by three wins over last season and went from a 8-seed last season to a 6-seed this season. Yet, they missed an opportunity to finish as high as the fifth-seed in losing to Bryant at home, who didn’t even make the NEC tournament this season, in the regular season finale. This team was picked by the NEC coaches in the preseason to finish fourth and one that I felt would be good enough to finish at least third in the conference.
KenPom predicted LIU to finish with 13 regular season wins and they beat that by two wins. Yet, they did reach the NEC tournament semifinals and a loss like this should only fuel them to get back to work to improve themselves in the offseason and make a run at the NEC title with a team that will be heavily loaded with seniors and juniors.
“We got to come back (next season) with a better defensive mindset.” said Jerome Frink. “Trying to stop teams because our offense is already there. If we came back with a defensive mindset, we’ll be one of the top teams in the league. We’re going to come back with a bigger chip on our shoulder, trying to win more games next year.”
“It is like a learning experience.” said Hernandez. “There are no seniors so we should all come back with a changed mindset. We know what it takes to win in the playoff, we just got to come back next year better than we played this year.”
As the offseason now arrives, as always, it will be interesting to see what comes from the offseason. Right now, there is a possibility that every single player will be back next season on a team that had no seniors on it this season. Will it happen? Time will tell. But that is something for another day and another post, hopefully in the very near future.
As far as this season goes, the Blackbirds just never got it cranking. Their only winning streak of at least three games came in the first three games of their season. After that, they just couldn’t get a streak going. Several factors went into that which will be discuss furthermore in the future.
Although, this season didn’t go as expected as some, there are moving in the right direction as far as wins goes.
Next season, it should only get better. It has to get better if this team remains intact.
This will be a key offseason for this program. They are on the cusp now of a becoming a legit NEC championship contender going into next season. What happens in this offseason by the LIU players and coaches and the mindset they bring into next season will determine if they are capable to becoming a championship squad or just a team who could have been a contender.