This week was the week before THE week.
Before LIU Brooklyn plays probably their two biggest games of the season in their final week of the regular season, they needed to get by this penultimate week which featured a less than usual buzz-worthy Battle of Brooklyn game at St. Francis Brooklyn and then a matchup of the two hottest teams in the NEC with the Blackbirds hosting Sacred Heart.
On Thursday, LIU Brooklyn took the short journey across Fulton Street to the Pope Physical Education Center at St. Francis Brooklyn to take on the last-place Terriers who have had a tough season as they begin their rebuilding efforts.
After a tight first meeting at the Steinberg Wellness Center back on January 14th which saw LIU prevail by just five points and this being the annual Battle of Brooklyn game which are usually highly-contested no matter the records each team comes in with, the thought was it would be another tight battle between the two Brooklyn teams.
It was not.
The Blackbirds come out of the gate strong in the first half and used a 15-0 run in a span of just over three minutes to take it from a competitive game to a laughter and give LIU a 48-25 advantage at the break.
LIU would expand their lead in the second half and go on to cruise to their most lopsided win of the season against DI competition, defeating St. Francis Brooklyn 82-45 in front of a national audience on CBS Sports Network.
LIU dominated the glass against the Terriers as they out-rebounded their cross-town rivals 52-27 and held them to just 24.5 percent shooting from the field. The Blackbirds also dominated the play in the paint as they outscored St. Francis Brooklyn 36-14 in points in the paint.
Every active LIU Brooklyn player got to play including walk-on Caylen Williams who got his first collegiate action of his career as he played in the final four minutes.
Redshirt senior forward Jerome Frink was named the Battle of Brooklyn most valuable player after his 15-point, 8-rebound and a game-high four-assist performance. Frink drained all three of his three-point attempts.
LIU also got great contributions from Nura Zanna who finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds for his 13th double-double of the season which is a team-high and is one more than teammate Jerome Frink. Iverson Fleming finished with 10 points.
The story of this game was the play of the LIU reserves off the bench. Their improved play of late once again came to the forefront led by sophomore Raiquan Clark. The 6’6″ guard/forward from New Haven, Connecticut finished with a career-high 15 points to go along with seven rebounds and two steals. Redshirt freshman Julius van Sauers also played well with nine points and four rebounds in twenty minutes off the bench.
Ganlandou Cisse, the reserve sophomore forward out of Senegal by ways of Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey, who was given the nickname “Mr. Perfect” by LIU Brooklyn play-by-play voice Ray Martel because in his one-plus seasons at LIU, Cisse hadn’t missed a field goal attempt in his career, going a perfect 8 for 8. He made what looked like a 12-foot jump shot to extend his perfect streak to eight before missing on what looked like a rather easy layup or dunk attempt that would have made it 9 for 9 for his career but instead makes him perfect no more.
The Terriers got a game-high 17 points from likely All-NEC Rookie team selection Rasheem Dunn. Dunn along with redshirt sophomore Glenn Sanabria who finished with just nine points are the two main building pieces going forward as St. Francis Brooklyn moves on in their rebuilding efforts. Brooklyn native and freshman guard Gianni Ford finished with 13 points in the loss to LIU which officially eliminated the Terriers from NEC tournament contention and makes it the first time under head coach Glenn Braica in which they didn’t qualify for the NEC tournament.
The win put LIU all alone in second place in the NEC standings after a loss by Fairleigh Dickinson to Sacred Heart on the road. Also, LIU got more good news as first-place Mount St. Mary’s lost on the road to Wagner and saw their lead shrink to just two games over LIU with three games to go in the regular season and with Mount having to play FDU and LIU in their next two games, things were suddenly getting very interesting from an LIU perspective.
On Saturday, LIU Brooklyn who was winners of their last three games hosted Sacred Heart who came in as the hottest team in the NEC as they entered the game winners of their last five straight.
The day was also Senior Day as LIU played their final regular season home game of the season at the Steinberg Wellness Center and LIU honored their three seniors, Jerome Frink, Iverson Fleming and Glenn Feidanga (who is out again with a reoccurring ankle injury) before the noon-time NEC-TV game.
It was obvious from the start, Sacred Heart’s gameplan was to try and not let Jerome Frink beat them and put heavy emphasis on him defensively. The plan worked as Frink had a frustrating game and shot just 2 for 15 and finished with nine points which snapped a streak of 30 straight games he played with at least 10 or more points.
But it was another senior who turned it on on Senior Day. Iverson Fleming was tremendous and even though his 9 for 26 shooting performance sticks out on the box score, he made big shots and big plays at crucial times in this game and LIU needed all 24 of his points to escape with the 83-82 win with Fleming coming up huge on the defensive end in the final seconds of this one.
The Blackbirds actually trailed for the majority of the first half and were down by as much as nine before getting going and outscoring the Pioneers 25-15 over the final 6:27 of the half to take a 47-46 lead to the locker room.
In the second half, after Sacred Heart took a brief one-point lead, LIU responded with a 9-0 run to go up by eight and looked like they might begin to pull away but the Pioneers stayed tough thanks to the play of Quincy McKnight who came to life.
De’von Barnett got Sacred Heart to within one with 1:39 left but neither team could make a shot after that. With eleven seconds left, Frink was fouled but could only make one of two from the charity stripe to put LIU up two, giving the Pioneers a chance to tie or win.
Frink would later foul Quincy McKnight on a drive to the basket with five seconds left which would be his fifth foul and put McKnight at the free throw line. McKnight would make his first but miss his second and Barnett would get the rebound and kicked it out to Charles Tucker who appeared to be signaling for a timeout and hesitated to put up a shot and then with time running down had to force up a shot that was blocked by a streaking Iverson Fleming and the carom landed in the hands of Jashaun Agosto who dribbles off the final ticks of the clock to give LIU the dramatic win.
“Obviously, it feels great whenever you can grind out a win like that,” Fleming said after the win. “It was just the will to win. They get the offensive rebound, don’t give up, just keep fighting to get the next stop.”
LIU got another career performance for Raiquan Clark who is now starting to emerge for LIU coming off the bench. He finished with a career-high 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds, all on the offensive end.
“He was tremendous.” LIU head coach Jack Perri after the win. “That is what he brings. He plays with that energy. The offensive rebounding, he’s got such a knack for that. We’ve seen that every day in practice where he has such a knack to get offensive rebounds. That is what he is. He has the ability to defend better than most, in different positions. The fact that charge that he took with about a minute and a half was a huge play as well. He has really stepped his game up, he has elevated his game last two games especially. He was a big part of our success today.”
Freshman point guard Jashaun Agosto also had himself a fantastic game with 14 points including hitting a pair of threes to go along with five rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Nura Zanna finished with his NEC-leading 14th double-double of the season with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
LIU was able to survive and get the win while allowing the Pioneers to shoot 54 percent in the game and giving up 8 of 20 three-pointers. LIU was able to take advantage of Sacred Heart turnovers as they scored 26 points off of 21 Pioneers’ turnovers.
“We focus on a few different things,” said Perri. “Our ability to keep teams off the foul line, rebounding, and limiting our turnovers and I think we did a really good job of that which gave us an opportunity to win a game where our team still shot the ball really really well. I’m happy for our guys. It wasn’t the prettiest victory but who cares.”
Sacred Heart got 18 points each from Joe Lopez and De’von Barnett. Lopez finished with a double-double. They got 16 points from Chris Robinson who was red-hot from three in the first half but only scored two points in the second half. Quincy McKnight who entered the game as the NEC’s second-leading scorer was held to 11 points, most of it coming late. Sacred Heart with the loss snapped their five-game winning streak and fall back to .500 in the conference at 8-8.
With the win, LIU goes to 18-11 overall and 11-5 in the NEC. The win keeps LIU in second place going into the crucial final week of the NEC regular season.
Unfortunately for LIU, Mount St. Mary’s rallied to beat Fairleigh Dickinson on the road Saturday afternoon and puts them pretty much on the verge of winning the NEC regular season title as they stay two games up on LIU with just two games to go.
The win by Mount greatly takes away a lot of the buzz and sizzle that would have been created for their upcoming matchup on Thursday night had they lost and were just a game ahead of LIU in the standings. Even if Mount loses to LIU on Thursday, all they need is a win against St. Francis Brooklyn next Saturday to wrap the regular season title.
LIU still have a lot to play for next week with Wagner on their tail at one game back and SFU and FDU two games back. It is quite possible if LIU loses at Mount Thursday and Wagner wins at home versus Bryant, their game on Saturday afternoon would be for the all-important two-seed in the NEC tournament, making that game a huge one.
LIU could end up anywhere from a one-seed to a five-seed depending on results of this upcoming week’s game so there is a ton for them to play for. This season, March Madness will begin one week early.