By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds squandered a prime opportunity to play "Hoosiers" against Indiana on Friday night.
The three-time defending Northeast Conference champions endured their worst offensive effort of an otherwise historic season, baffling first-year coach Jack Perri and the rest of Blackbird nation with an ugly 68-55 loss to fellow No. 16 seed James Madison on Wednesday night in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament before 12,027 fans at University of Dayton Arena.
''Plain and simple, they really bothered our shots,'' Perri admitted after LIU went 7-for-30 from the field over the final 20 minutes against the Dukes, who outrebounded, outhustled and outmuscled the smaller, quicker Blackbirds right out of the gym. ''That was something we weren't necessarily thinking was going to happen.''
The steely resolve and reslience evident throughout LIU's march to madness was missing in the first 15 minutes of the First Four showdown with JMU as the Blackbirds fell behind 30-18 with 4:11 remaining before intermission.
"We played like our brains fell out the first 15 minutes," lamented Perri, who is among 10 finalists for the Joe B. Hall Award as the top first-year coach in the nation after helping LIU become the first team in the 32-year history of the NEC to win three straight tournament titles.
Even the appearance of an actual Blackbird in the arena early in the first half couldn't boost LIU to its initial NCAA tourney win in six tries as the Dukes, making their first trip to the NCAAs since 1994, took better care of the basketball and made the most of their opportunities.
The Blackbirds did have their "One Shining Moment", finishing the first half on a 13-2 run to pull within 32-31 at the half. LIU even edged in front for the first and only time, 40-39, with 15:02 to play on two free throws by freshman E.J. Reed. But from that point on, the Dukes, who advanced to face top-seeded Indiana in Dayton Friday night, were the better and more poised team.
NEC Player of the Year Jamal Olasewere had 20 points and 10 boards in his collegiate swan song, finishing his LIU career as the program's all-time leading scorer (1,871 points) and fourth-best rebounder (963). But the Maryland native was bothered by JMU's interior defense en route to an 8-of-18 shooting night, picked up three first-half fouls to deter his own shot-blocking prowess and lost his cool with the Dukes and the officials on more than one occasion.
Even with leading scorer and rebounder Rayshawn Goins out for the first half following a team-imposed suspension for his arrest on Selection Sunday, the Dukes looked like the more experienced tournament team while the Blackbirds played the role of big-game neophyte.
A.J. Davis scored 20 points, Charles Cooke added 15 and Andre Nation dominated the interior with 14 points, seven rebounds and five of JMU's 10 blocked shots.
"[Nation] had five blocks as a guard," a dejected and exhausted Olasewere said. "Around the rim, he made me struggle."
Departing senior C.J. Garner, who surpassed the 30-point mark in three of his previous four contests, was limited to only 16 after tweaking his ankle during the first half. He and Olasewere, former high school teammates in Silver Springs, MD, were both dejected on the loser's podium following the painful defeat.
“We pushed each other to get to the level we’re at right now, which is to get back to the tournament, and to be here three times,” Garner said. “It (stinks) that we’re not going to be able to play together anymore, but I think we’ve taught each other a lot, and we’ve both grown from it. I wish [Olasewere] the best. It’s just been great.”
Of course, things may have been different if the Blackbirds had 2012 NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd for their stretch run to the tournament. The senior from Texas, who will bid for an extra year of eligibility next season after tearing his ACL in December, probably would have thrust LIU into the second round without having to compete in the First Four game.
Even if he does return in 2013-14, however, Boyd will have to take the court for the first time without Olasewere, Garner, Brandon Thompson, Kenny Onyechi and Booker Hucks.
“In December when you lose Julian Boyd, who would have thought?” Perri pondered. “Nobody would have thought we’d have gotten to this point. Nobody talked about it. Nobody talked about us.”
Perri has a point. As gutwrenching as Wednesday night's loss was, the 15-3 run that got LIU to the tournament is what will be best-remembered when this class of Blackbirds takes its place among the pantheon of the Downtown school's all-time greats.
They began the season 0-4, had their school-record 31-game home winning streak at the Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center snapped to fall to 5-10 and lost their best player before conference play even started. And yet, the Perrimen found a way to reclaim their NEC throne and go into the first-round game with JMU as a slight (1 1/2 point) favorite.
“What they did shows true character,” said Perri. “The intestinal fortitude that they showed through January, February, and into March was just awesome.”
Junior point guard Jason Brickman, who will definitely be back for a shot at Title IV next season after leading the nation in assists this year, finished with seven points and seven helpers. Reed put up 14 points and sophomore Gerrell Martin had a career-best 15 in the biggest game of his budding career at LIU.
What happens next for the Blackbirds will be in the hands of these players after the senior class for the ages moves on, having fallen just one win shy of being the first LIU team ever to dance away with an NCAA Tournament win.
“Yeah, it’s going to be difficult,” Perri said of the program's immediate future. “Guys are going to have to step into new roles. We’ve made unbelievable progress the last few years, and hopefully we can continue that.”