by John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
A three-time defending Northeast Conference champion, that is.
On the outside looking in at the NEC Tournament picture throughout most of this tumultuous season, the LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds now stand poised to make a charge toward their fourth consecutive league title.
Junior Gerrell Martin poured in a career-high 26 points and senior point guard and Bob Cousy Award finalist Jason Brickman added 14 points and 12 assists as the Blackbirds held on tight to control of their own postseason destiny with a crucial 80-75 victory at Sacred Heart on Tuesday night.
“If we can get in, we can make a run,” Brickman said earlier in the week, shrugging off all his individual accomplishments this season in the hopes of getting the Blackbirds back into contention to make it an unprecedented four straight NEC crowns.
Buoyed by Thursday’s big win, LIU (9-18, 4-10 NEC) can nail down the final NEC Tournament spot with a victory over eighth-place Central Connecticut State on Thursday night at the Steinberg Wellness Center and a win against visiting Bryant in the regular-season finale Saturday.
That scenario hardly seemed possible when LIU endured a four-game losing streak from Jan. 30-Feb. 8, capped by a backbreaking set of home losses in Downtown Brooklyn.
But second-year coach Jack Perri rallied his troops to a 69-68 win over neighborhood rival St. Francis in the Battle of Brooklyn game at Barclays Center on Feb. 16.
Despite the back-to-back losses that followed, the Blackbirds knew that they were still in a win-and-you’re-in situation if they could capture their final three contests.
Martin, who has filled in admirably at forward in the absence of former NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd following his season-ending knee injury, made sure the Blackbirds completed step one on their path back to the NECs.
He hit 10-of-14 shots, including 5-of-7 3-pointers, and grabbed five rebounds against the Pioneers as the Blackbirds left Fairfield, Conn., with their playoff hopes intact.
Brickman, a candidate for NEC Player of the Year honors and the Division I assists leader for a second straight season, moved into fourth place on the NCAA’s all-time assists list with 987 during his now-fabled four-year run at LIU.
Brickman passed former East Tennessee State guard Keith “Mister” Jennings on the coveted list en route to his 10th double-double of the campaign.
Over the past three games, the San Antonio native has hit 12-of-18 3-pointers, including a perfect 4-for-4 in the Blackbirds’ must win game against Sacred Heart.
LIU can complete a season series sweep and move within one win of having a chance to defend its title by beating CCSU Thursday night. The Blackbirds edged the Blue Devils, 62-61, in New Britain, Conn., back on Jan. 18.
The St. Francis Brooklyn men’s basketball team has already wrapped up a trip to the NEC Tournament, but wasn’t able to pull out an overtime decision at NEC-leading Robert Morris on Saturday.
The heartbreaking 71-70 loss left the Terriers (16-13, 7-7 NEC) deadlocked for fifth place in the conference standings with St. Francis (Pa.) entering Thursday night’s game against visiting Bryant at the Pope Center.
Coach Glenn Braica’s struggling unit has lost four of five games since the suspension of five players, two of which have since returned, in an ongoing criminal investigation at the Remsen Street school.
The last three of those losses have come by a total of four points, including Saturday’s one-point defeat which featured a pair of 18-point performances by juniors Jalen Cannon and Lowell Ulmer.
The Terriers are only one game behind fourth-place Mount St. Mary’s in the hunt for the right to host a first-round tournament game at the Pope Center.
Brooklyn College saw its hopes of a CUNYAC men’s title go up in smoke Saturday afternoon at the West Quad Center as fifth-seeded Hunter stunned the No. 4 Bulldogs, 90-80, in the quarterfinal round.
Junior Jai Kellman scored a career-high 36 points for BC (12-14), which has a lot to look forward to in 2014-15 as the Bulldogs will return all 11 players from this year’s roster.
The NYU-Poly men’s team closed out its final season in style Saturday, besting Mount Saint Vincent, 68-67, at Jacobs Gymnasium.
Isaac Neaves scored 23 points and Brendan Gallagher added 18 for Poly, which finished the campaign with a 5-20 mark, including 3-15 in conference play.
On the women’s side, LIU-Brooklyn punched its ticket to the NEC Tournament on Monday night, beating Fairleigh Dickinson, 56-40, on Senior Night.
Fourth-year players Cleandra Roberts, Fanny Cavallo, Courtney Sullivan and Genise Presley were honored before the game as the Blackbirds assured themselves no worse than a No. 8 seed for next month’s championship tournament with two games remaining.
Roberts scored a game-high 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds and Cavallo pulled down a game-high 14 caroms for the Blackbirds, who can still climb to as high as sixth in the tournament seedings with a strong finish.
Coach Gail Striegler’s squad will visit Sacred Heart on Saturday and visit St. Francis at the Pope Center on Monday in the annual Battle of Brooklyn game.
The Terriers continued the best season in program history with Monday night’s 93-82 overtime win over visiting Robert Morris.
Juniors Sarah Benedetti and Eilidh Simpson scored 28 and 27 points, respectively for the Terriers (18-9, 9-7 NEC), who are in a three-way tie for third place in the league standings.
"Tonight was a big win for us," said St. Francis coach John Thurston. "They (Robert Morris) have been the best team since conference play began and have arguably the best player in the league. “We played them tough the last time we played them on their court and tonight we made plays that we needed to make and especially at this time of the year."
"We got together at halftime and talked about our principals," added Benedetti, who had a breathtaking behind-the-back layup for two of her career high-tying point total.
"I couldn't tell you what was going through my head going behind the back,” she said of the spectacular basket. “For some reason it was instinct to do so and if you asked me to do it again, I couldn't do that if I tried."
St. Francis, having already established a program-record for wins in a season, will host Bryant on Saturday before welcoming the Blackbirds to Remsen Street on Monday night.
The Terriers will honor their three seniors -- Ozana Marginean, Kiley Grabbe and Jasmin Robinson – prior to Saturday’s 2 p.m. tip-off.
The St. Joseph's (Brooklyn) women's basketball team earned an at-large bid in the 2014 United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) Division I National Championships as the No. 7 seed in the eight-team tournament.
The Lady Bears (15-11) will take on No. 2 Ave Maria University in the first round on Wednesday, March 5 at 1 p.m. on the campus of Penn State Fayette in Uniontown, Pa.
St. Joseph's returns to the USCAA tournament for the first time since 2010, when they entered as the No. 9 seed in a then-single division, 12-team championship.
They also earned an NCAA tournament bid in 2012 – the first and only NCAA Tournament appearance in school history in any sport.
The victor will face the winner of the third-ranked Robert Morris University Springfield and No. 6 University of Maine Fort Kent in the semifinals.
Despite finishing as HVIAC champions with an 18-9 record, the men's basketball team did not receive a second straight bid to the National Championships and ends its season with the most wins since the 2006-07 campaign.
On Senior Day at Jacobs Gymnasium on Sunday afternoon, sophomore Alyssa D’Apice stole the show as the NYU-Poly women’s squad closed out its campaign with a 68-61 loss to Sage Colleges.
D’Apice finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and nine assists for the Jays, who won just two of their 25 games this season.
Fourth-year players Noelle McKoy, Rebecca Eaker, Ryane Pappa and Tabitha Larsen were honored before the contest.
Larsen completed her career at NYU-Poly with a 22-point effort, capping a four-year run that saw her eclipse 1,000 points at the Downtown school.