By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The two-time defending Northeast Conference champion LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds are hoping the friendly environs of the Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center help them get out of unfamiliar territory.
Winners of 31 straight at the WRAC, the Blackbirds (5-9) will try to end a season-high five-game losing streak, as well as shake off a disappointing 0-2 start in NEC play, when they host Wagner on Thursday.
Playing without suspended starters Jamal Olasewere and C.J. Garner, as well as reserve swingman Troy Joseph due to the trio's role in an on-campus brawl back in September, LIU suffered a 77-73 loss at Sacred Heart last Thursday before Saturday's 82-74 defeat to Quinnipiac.
The fruitless two-game trip through Connecticut dropped the Blackbirds into the basement of a league they've dominated en route to capturing back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament. LIU went a combined 32-4 in conference play in its final two seasons under former coach Jim Ferry, not including perfect runs through the NEC Tournament in each of those campaigns.
But a season-ending injury to reigning NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd, coupled with the two-game suspensions of three key contributors, left new coach Jack Perri without anything resembling a full arsenal these past few weeks.
The Blackbirds, who have not played in Downtown Brooklyn since crushing Manhattan 75-48 at the WRAC in their first full game without Boyd, must find a way to climb back into the early season hunt for the NEC crown with three of their next four contests on home soil, beginning with Thursday's showdown against the visiting Seahwaks (8-5 overall, 2-0 NEC). LIU will host Mount St. Mary's at the Barclays Center on Saturday in the hopes of ending a two-game skid in the new state-of-the art arena after losses to Morehead State (Nov. 9) and Seton Hall (Dec. 22).
The return of Olasewere (averaging team highs of 18.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game) and Garner (11.3 ppg) should help Perri's crew get back on track, especially since fast-emerging freshman E.J. Reed appears ready to assume a bigger role after earning his second straight NEC Rookie of the Week award Monday.
Reed made his first two career starts over the weekend, putting up 14 points against Sacred Heart and 15 vs. Quinnipiac. Junior point guard Jason Brickman had 16 points and nine assists against the Bobcats on Saturday, but it wasn't enough as the Blackbirds were outrebounded by a whopping 39-22 margin.
“Every win is a big win in the NEC,” Quinnipiac's Ike Azotam said after scoring 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting against the shorthanded Blackbirds. “At the end of the day we’re fighting for position in the NEC tournament, so every game is big.”
None bigger than the next one for LIU, which will try to make it 32 straight at the WRAC, and more importantly, win No. 1 in NEC play.
Despite their slow start in conference play, the Blackbirds had some good news this week as Perri announced that North Carolina native Chris Carter and Nigerian Nura Zanna were inked to National Letters-of-Intent for the 2013-14 season.
"We are very excited about the additions of both Chris and Nura," Perri said. "They are both really good kids and versatile frontcourt guys that will help us immediately with the graduation of Jamal Olasewere, Kenny Onyechi and Booker Hucks."
Carter is a 6-foot-7 forward who attends Wake Technical Community College. Through his first six games this season, the versatile Carter is averaging 11.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, including a 22-point performance in a recent win over Sandhills C.C.
As a junior at Sanderson High School in Raleigh, N.C., Carter led the Spartans in scoring and rebounding and was rated as a mid-major plus prospect by ESPN.com. He is described by ESPN as a “versatile wing with size and length that can consistently shoot it off the dribble or catch.”
“Chris is an athletic and versatile forward that plays more on the perimeter, and has a unique ability to handle the ball extremely well for his size," Perri noted
Zanna averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds as a junior at Coral Springs Christian Academy in Florida. He was named to the Florida Class 3A All-State First Team, becoming the first Crusader ever to be named to an all-state first team. He also led CSCA to a school-record 26 wins. Recently, the 6-7 forward set a school record with 40 points while pulling down 14 rebounds in a narrow loss to Dr. Phillips.
The Kaduna, Nigeria native was named the top player in South Florida for the Class of 2013 by rmfmag.com, and the No. 16 player in the state of Florida by sourcehoops.com. Nura’s brother, Talib Zanna, is a redshirt junior member of the men’s basketball team at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Nura is a strong and athletic frontcourt guy that really competes on the glass and can play with both his back to the basket and facing up on the perimeter," said Perri, who was instrumental in recruiting the players that led LIU to its consecutive league championships.
The St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers can enjoy staring down at their neighborhood rivals in the NEC standings for the time being.
Bedford Academy alum Brent Jones had a steal and layup with just nine seconds remaining last Thursday as the Terriers (5-8, 1-1 NEC) opened their conference slate with an impressive 63-61 victory at Quinnipiac before suffering a 66-65 loss at Sacred Heart on Saturday.
Reigning NEC Coach of the Year Glenn Braica's unit had a shot at improving to 2-0 in league action, but Jones' bid for another game-winning basket failed to drop as time expired against Sacred Heart.
Sophomore sensation Jalen Cannon had 14 points and eight rebounds in the win over the Bobcats and added 20 points and 16 boards in the loss to the Pioneers.
St. Francis, which will play four of its next five at the Pope Centeron Remsen Street, returns to the hardwood Thursday against visiting Mount St. Mary's.
The Brooklyn College men's team returned from winter break with a 62-58 triumph over CUNYAC rival Lehman College on Saturday.
Senior Jeffrey Noel had a team-high 18 points with seven rebounds off the bench for the Bulldogs, who improved to 3-6 overall and 2-2 in conference play.
Brooklyn native Jethro Auguste scored 12 points, but the NYU-Poly men's squad dropped a 78-59 decision to the Sage Colleges on Monday night.
The Jays fell to 2-5 overall and 1-2 against Skyline Conference opponents.
On the women's side, Gail Striegler's Blackbirds are also on a five-game slide, including Saturday's 61-47 loss at Sacred Heart.
LIU-Brooklyn (3-10, 0-2 NEC) is suffering through a tough stretch following a breakthrough 21-win campaign in 2011-12, which culminated in a disappointing first-round loss in the NEC Tournament.
Freshman guard Sophie Bashin and senior Krystal Wells scored eight points apiece for the Blackbirds, who will make their Barclays Center debut Saturday at noon against Mount St. Mary's in the first half of the men's-women's doubleheader on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.
The St. Francis Brooklyn women saw their two-game winning streak snapped with Saturday's 73-52 loss at Quinnipiac.
The sophomore tandem of Sarah Benedetti and Jaymee Venee combined for 30 points as the Terriers (4-9, 1-1) were unable to build off their conference schedule-opening 56-47 win at Sacred Heart last Thursday.
St. Francis visits Wagner in Staten Island on Saturday before returning to Remsen Street for a three-game homestand, beginning Monday against Mount St. Mary's.
The Lady Bulldogs of Brooklyn College rolled into the new year with an 82-29 rout of visiting Lehman at the West Quad Center on Saturday.
Bishop Ford product Vanessa D'Ambrosi scored a game-high 18 points for BC, which upped its overall record to 8-3 while jumping to 3-1 in CUNYAC play.
The Bulldogs were scheduled to host Baruch College Tuesday in the first half of a men's-women's doubleheader. The two programs met earlier this year in the CUNYAC title game, which Baruch won, 65-49.
The NYU-Poly Lady Jays dropped their conference opener, 70-57, in Downtown Brooklyn on Monday evening.
Freshman Alyssa D'Apice led the Jays with 17 points.
In local high school sports news, the Bishop Kearney girls' basketball team remained perfect at 4-0 after last Friday's narrow 50-48 victory over Brooklyn rival St. Edmund's.
Jen Kaye had a game-high 17 points while the backcourt tandem of Christina Hayer and Emily Hiltunen combined for 25 points.
Also at Bishop Kearney, the school announced last week that it would be hosting the New York Daily News Golden Gloves on Feb. 1. The event will take place in the Brooklyn school's gymnasium, located at 2202-60th Street, beginning at 7:30. For information on acquiring tickets to the bouts, call 718-236-6363 ext. 246.