By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
While the Nets rest up for the stretch run toward their first playoff berth in six years and the three-time Northeast Conference champions of LIU-Brooklyn await Selection Sunday, there is another notable local hoops story set to unfold at Downtown's Barclays Center this weekend.
Nearly five years removed from leading Park Slope's Bishop Ford High School to a CHSAA state title, Bushwick native Chaz Williams will be back on the block, so to speak, Thursday night when his UMass Minutemen take on George Washington University (NBC Sports Network, 9 p.m.) in the opening round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, which will make its debut on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.
Williams, who began his collegiate career at Hofstra before taking home First Team All-A-10 honors the past two years at UMass, is coming off his best season after leading the league in assists (7.6 per game) and averaging a career-best 15.4 points per contest. At 19-10 overall and 9-7 in conference play, the Minutemen enter the A-10 tourney as the No. 6 seed, but have won three of their last four games.
“It shows that my hard work has been paying off and everything,” Williams said before practice on Tuesday as he prepared to play in front of friends and family at Brooklyn's new state-of-the-art arena. “I’m honored and it’s a pleasure to be on the list with those guys but I feel like I wouldn’t be on there without my teammates.”
A graduate of P.S. 45 and I.S. 296, Williams has deep roots here and would like nothing better than to hoist the A-10 Championship Trophy come Sunday night.
Williams' coach, Derek Kellogg, believes his 5-foot-9 playmaker extraordinaire has what it takes to take the Minutemen to the NCAA Tournament, thanks in large part to his upbringing in our fair borough.
“He’s got that Brooklyn attitude like, ‘Brooklyn is the greatest place on earth, the best city anywhere, our players are better than you,’ ” Kellogg told the Boston Herald this week. “It’s something that unless you’re around the guy, you don’t understand the New York City guard toughness or the ability to win.”
“I have to credit the courts of Brooklyn for partially giving me the toughness that I have today," added Williams.
With a victory Thursday, Williams and the Minutemen will qualify for Friday's quarterfinal round against third-seeded Temple, also at 9 p.m. at Barclays Center.
The A-10 Women's Championship Game, featuring No. 3 Fordham and No. 4 St. Joseph's, will also be held at Barclays Center for the first time ever on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Though they fell considerably short of earning a berth to their first-ever NCAA Tournament this season, the women's basketball team of St. Francis Brooklyn certainly made tremendous strides under first-year coach John Thurston on Remsen Street.
The Terriers, who won just 12 games combined over the previous four campaigns, went 11-19 this year and earned their first berth in the NEC Tournament since 2008. As the No. 7 seed, St. Francis traveled up to Fairfield, Conn., last weekend for an opening-round clash with No. 2 Sacred Heart, a game that began with a 5-1 burst by the heavy underdogs before the more-seasoned Pioneers ran way for a relatively easy 64-38 victory.
"Sacred Heart players play as if they've been there before. Our players haven't been there," noted Thurston, who served as former coach Brenda Milano's top assistant before taking the head job upon her resignation following last season. "But by playing in these games and our kids learning from their opponents, they learn the mental toughness it takes to rise to the occasion. That's what I told our kids. 'That's what you have to work for for the next 365 days to get back to this (opportunity).'"
All-Conference selections Sarah Benedetti, a sophomore, and freshman Leah Fuchko, should be back for another shot at the NEC crown over the next few seasons. As will returning junior Jasmin Robinson of Bishop Ford High School and 6-foot sophomore Jaymee Veney as Thurston continues to lay the foundation for a solid program.
In other local college hoops news, Brooklyn College senior Brittany Bowen was named to the 2013 Women's Basketball D3Hoops.com All-Atlantic Region Third Team.
Bowen was also named a City University of New York Athletic Conference (CUNYAC) First Team All-Star and an Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Division III Metro Women's Basketball All-Star Second Team after helping the Bulldogs to a program-record 24 wins and within one victory of the CUNYAC title.
The Maryland native averaged a team-high 12.5 points per game for BC, which lost to perennial powerhouse Baruch in the CUNYAC title game last month before a 67-62 home loss to Hartwick College at Brooklyn's West Quad Center cost them the ECAC crown.
On the men's side, senior Kavon Baker, a Midwood High alum, earned a spot on the D3Hoops.com All-Atlantic Region Second Team honor Wednesday.
Baker, who was also named a CUNYAC and ECAC First Team All-Star, led the Bulldogs in scoring (19.1 ppg), assists (4.3 apg) and steals (2.8 spg), to go with 4.7 rebounds per game.
In Daytona Beach Fla., on Tuesday, the LIU-Brooklyn men's golf team captured the Lonnie Barton Invitational title by five strokes, thanks in large part to the efforts of freshman Stewart Gray, who finished in a tie for second overall during the annual tournament in memory of the former Blackbirds golf coach and program founder.
Sophomore Obe Ayton, the Blackbirds' top player, did not participate int he second round despite firing a team-best 75 in the round one. But Gray and his teammates certainly picked up the slack, helping the Blackbirds stay ahead of second-place finisher Sacred Heart.
Junior Lloyd Martinson shot a team-best 79 on Day Two, while senior Josh Waters scored an 80.
The LIU women's golf team made it a clean sweep at the Barton by grabbing their second straight crown at the event. Sophomore Christina Felip grabbed the individual crown by firing a final-round 78.
The Blackbirds' women's tennis squad improved to a perfect 7-0 this season with Wednesday morning's 7-0 sweep of Minnesota State in Puerto Rico, while the men's baseball team dropped a 13-4 decision to Bucknell in Lakeland, Fla.