By John Torenli
Can’t wait for the rematch!
Arguably the biggest game ever in the Battle of Brooklyn rivalry lived up to the hype Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden as first-place LIU-Brooklyn held on for an 86-77 victory over Downtown neighbor St. Francis College before a crowd of 7,618 fans at ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena.’
While Terriers coach Glenn Braica cited big-game “jitters” as the cause for his upset-minded team’s slow start, LIU’s Jim Ferry noted the “grueling” nature of the home-and-home opener on his squad.
Neither coach, however, could deny that the annual tete-a-tete between our borough’s Division I NCAA Tournament hopefuls was something special to behold.
“I really thought that was a typical Battle of Brooklyn-type game,” Ferry said after watching his dynamic junior duo of Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere combine for 38 points and 22 rebounds. “It’s a game of runs every time we play it. There’s a lot of pride, and I think it played out like that.”
“I thought we came out with the jitters,” Braica admitted after his team fell behind by as many as 13 points in the first 20 minutes before battling back to take a one-point lead early in the second half.
“It could have been playing at the Garden, or it could have been the hype. It also could have been that prior to the season we were picked 11th [in the Northeast Conference], and now we’re up there playing for first.”
Junior forward Akeem Johnson, who is determined to guide St. Francis to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance during next month’s highly anticipated NEC Championships, did his best to keep the Terriers in the game during their first-half malaise.
The 6-foot-6, 220-pound bruiser scored his team’s first eight points and had 11 by the time the time the Terriers fell behind 23-14 with 13:45 to play in the opening stanza.
His teammates followed suit soon after, rallying to inch ahead 40-39 when Johnson made a layup to open the scoring in the second half, capping a spell-binding 14-0 run.
However, LIU once again lived up to its preseason billing as the team to beat, not only in Brooklyn but the entire NEC, putting up eight straight points to take the lead for good.
The contest appeared out of reach when Boyd (17 points, 11 rebounds) made a free throw with just over three minutes remaining that gave the Blackbirds a 78-70 cushion.
But sophomore sharp-shooter Ben Mockford, who finished with 20 points for St. Francis, responded with a three-pointer to tighten things up momentarily before LIU pulled away again by making eight free throws down the stretch.
Olasewere finished with a team-high 21 points and 11 boards, and junior guard C.J. Garner had a season-high 19 points for LIU, which won for the 13th time in its last 14 games and posted its third straight win in the Battle of Brooklyn series.
Sunday’s repeat performance at The Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center will tip off at 4 p.m., and the game will be televised locally on the MSG Network for those unable to attend.
According to Ferry, playing the Terriers in consecutive games will be a major test for his battle-tested squad, which gave national powerhouse North Carolina all it could handle during its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 14 years last March.
“It’s brutal,” Ferry revealed. “I don’t like that we have to play these rivalry games back-to-back. Ours is a true rivalry ¼ there is so much emotion used up in these games.”
That emotion affected, but certainly did not overwhelm Braica’s players, who gave everything they had down the stretch before succumbing to the Blackbirds en route to their first loss in six games.
“We’re just trying to come back and hopefully play better and the outcome will probably be different [Sunday],” Johnson boldly stated.
With the loss, St. Francis (13-11, 10-3 NEC) slipped to third in the NEC standings, one game behind second-place Wagner (11-2 NEC) and two back of LIU (18-7, 12-1).
An at-large bid to the NCAAs isn’t likely to be available to any of the three contenders, making Sunday’s rematch and the upcoming NEC Tournament of epic importance to all the squads involved.
“The team that loses is looking to come back and get a win,” Boyd said. “They don’t want to get beat twice in a row.”
See you on Sunday.
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The Blackbirds and Terriers weren’t the only Brooklyn teams in action Wednesday night.
The Bulldogs of Brooklyn College rolled to their fourth straight win at York College in Jamaica, N.Y., using a big second half to eclipse the Cardinals, 80-58, in a CUNYAC showdown.
Jamaica native Tyshawn Russell scored a game-high 25 points, junior Kavon Baker (Midwood High School) added 18 and senior Amil John (South Shore) finished with 17 for BC, which improved to 16-7 overall and 7-3 in league play.
Baker scored seven points during a game-opening 10-0 run for the Bulldogs, who shot nearly 67 percent over the final 20 minutes and an impressive 57 percent for the game. They also forced 31 turnovers, converting them into 39 points.
BC will look to make it five wins in a row tonight at the West Quad Center against CUNYAC-leading College of Staten Island, the only remaining unbeaten team in the conference. Tip-off is at 7 p.m.
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The BC women wrapped up the CUNYAC South title before the men hit the floor Wednesday, rolling past York 72-42 to remain unbeaten in league action.
Senior guard Lauren Plagainos scored 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting and junior back court mate Charnelle Saint Lauren added 11 points for the Lady Bulldogs, who improved to 17-6 overall and a perfect 10-0 in CUNYAC games.
Freshman sensation Nicole Francomano dished out nine assists and scored nine points as BC polished off its ninth win in 10 games, rebounding nicely from Saturday’s 90-76 home loss to Stockton College.
The Bulldogs will also be back in action this evening at 5 p.m., against COSI at the West Quad Center.
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After losing their legendary coach, Apache Pascall, to cancer earlier this year, the national powerhouse girls’ basketball team, along with the rest of the student body and staff, at Brooklyn’s Nazareth High School received even more bad news Wednesday.
The 50-year-old Catholic School officially announced that it would be closing its doors at the end of the 2011-12 academic year, ending an era of nearly unparalleled greatness for the storied program.
The decision was made due to a 50 percent drop in enrollment, down from 602 students last year to only 311.
“It is a difficult time for Nazareth’s administration, teachers, parents and students,” principal Providencia Quiles noted in a school-issued statement. “Our focus over the next few months will be to ease our students into a transition, continue to focus on their academics and motivate them to complete the year with strong academic results.”
“The staff will serve as advisors for course and school recommendations for each student and their family; we want our students and families to know how much we care about them and their futures.”
The Nazareth players, determined to repeat their Class AA Federation State championship from a season ago, are still trying to get a pair of games rescheduled with Brooklyn rivals Bishop Ford and Christ the King. Both schools declined to play Nazareth in the days following Pascall’s passing on Jan. 3.
The Catholic School Athletic Association is still mulling whether to charge Bishop Ford and Christ the King with forfeits for those contests.