LIU Brooklyn returned to action on Thursday looking to start a new winning streak which was snapped on Saturday in their loss to first-place Fairleigh Dickinson on the road.
The Blackbirds with the help of their starting upperclassmen made just enough plays to edge out Sacred Heart at the Pitt Center in their 60-57 victory Thursday night.
LIU got off to a slow start and trailed 10-3 nearly six and half minutes into the game which saw LIU head coach Jack Perri visible frustrated and looking for some kind of spark to get his team going. Perri even inserted little-used walk-on Mitchell McMullen as well as sparsely-used senior Glenn Feidanga into the game five minutes in before quickly going back to his starters.
“We didn’t start off with the right mindset,” Perri said. “So we went to quick timeout, quick substitutions. I thought once that first three-minute stint (went by), then we defended, then we got back to guarding the way we’re capable of doing.”
The wake-up call sparked LIU to a 9-0 run and to their first lead of the game and carried them the rest of the half to a three-point lead at the break.
Sacred Heart though as expected at home, wouldn’t go away. Sophomore Quincy McKnight who was held to seven points in the first half, would start to get going and begin asserting himself offensively along with help from junior Mario Matasovic to keep within striking distance.
Sacred Heart would actually get a chance to steal a win with under a minute to play, Matasovic knocked down a three after passing up a couple of chances to shoot to tie the game at 57 with 51 seconds remaining.
On the next LIU possession, with the shot clock getting low, Jerome Frink at the top of the key lobbed a pass to Nura Zanna down low and Zanna with a pair of Sacred Heart defenders on him, somehow found space and muscled up a layup that went in and gave LIU a two-point lead with 27 seconds left.
McKnight would have a chance to tie the game once again at the free throw line but McKnight, the NEC second-leading scorer, missed both free throws.
LIU freshman Jashaun Agosto then went to the free throw to ice the game but made just one of two giving Sacred Heart one last chance to take the game to overtime but Matej Buovac missed a three which he had a good look at over the smaller Agosto.
The game was ugly offensively in the first half in which neither team cracked 0.90 points per possession. LIU did finish with 0.91 points per possession and held Sacred Heart to 0.86 ppp.
“It was ugly offense throughout,” Perri said. “That is what we face when you have Jerome and you have (Zanna) who have been so good early on in league play, their whole focus is swallowing those guys up. We took 15 threes in the first half, we haven’t taken 15 threes in a half all year so in the second half, we took just one.
LIU can thank their win at Sacred Heart to their three starting upperclassmen who all made big plays at big times in this game.
Senior Iverson Fleming, who was held scoreless in his previous game at FDU last Saturday, came back strong with an outstanding shooting game as he dropped 22 points on 9 of 17 shooting to lead the way for the Blackbirds.
“My focus was to just come out here to compete and get a win,” Fleming said. “Last week as a whole, we didn’t play well. I wanted to show my teammates that I’m not going to let that happen again. Do whatever it takes to win you know. It is my last year and I’m just trying to help my team be in the right position at the right time.”
“You knew he was going to (bounce back),” Perri said. “He got such a mentally. He is so locked in, he wants to have success so badly and I think his defense triggers his offense. He did such a good job on McKnight. I put him on their best player night in and night out. He has such great stamina and his ability to do that and come up with good offense, it is not easy. He is going to be pretty tired tonight.”
Also, the Blackbirds got another double-double effort from senior Jerome Frink who finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds for his tenth double-double of the season. Nura Zanna, who scored the game-winning basket, finished with eight points and ten rebounds, narrowly missing his eleventh double-double of the season.
LIU also got 17 combined points from their freshman guards Agosto and Julian Batts. LIU didn’t get a single bench point in this game as the bench went a combined 0 for 8 from the field as all five starters played at least 29 minutes including Frink, Agosto, and Fleming playing 35 minutes or more.
“Anytime you can get a win on the road, it is a good win,” Perri said. “I don’t think we’ve played to our potential at all in conference play. We’ve had a few really good games but I think we’ve gutted out wins especially on the defensive end and rebounding has been such a positive. It was ugly but that play by Zanna to put that in with his left hand was huge and we made some free throws down the stretch and end up getting some stops, so some really good things and then we can learn from the bad by watching tape.”
Sacred Heart with the loss, fell to 3-6 in the NEC at the halfway point, got 16 points from Quincy McKnight, 13 points from Mario Matasovic and 10 points from Joseph Lopez. The Pioneers are now tied for seventh-place in the NEC along with Robert Morris and are just one game ahead of ninth-place St. Francis Brooklyn who are currently looking out of the NEC tournament picture.
“(LIU’s) guards were driving by us too easily,” said Sacred Heart head coach Anthony Latina. “Iverson Fleming was getting into the paint and Agosto was getting into the paint at will. That created some easy baskets for other players, for Zanna. Obviously, Jerome Frink is a dynamite player. Probably the best player in the league. I would say he is probably my player of the year right now based on his performance so you know he is going to get his. We just needed to do a better job against Iverson Fleming and we knew with him coming off a bad game against FDU, he was going to try and step it up.”
LIU with the victory, remain one game behind Mount St. Mary’s and Fairleigh Dickinson who both won their games on Thursday although Mount just squeaked by Robert Morris with a one-point win at home and now have three wins in the conference by two points or less. LIU also remains two games clear of fourth-place Saint Francis U.
The Blackbirds now move on to New Britain, Connecticut to take on Central Connecticut State who once again are having a rough go of it this season at 3-17 but did get their first NEC win of the season last Saturday at Saint Francis U. and can’t be taken lightly especially on the road.