By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
An overwhelming choice to finish atop their league and return to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year, no one could have imagined that the Blackbirds of LIU-Brooklyn would somehow emerge as the midseason "Cinderellas" of the Northeast Conference.
But a slew of injuries, most notably a season-ending ACL tear to the knee of reigning NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd, along with an embarrassing offseason incident that resulted in the suspensions of three key players, left the Blackbirds with an ugly 5-10 mark, including a hard-to-fathom 0-3 mark in conference play.
"There's been a lot of adversity. We got off to a difficult start," first-year Blackbirds coach Jack Perri admitted. "It was a hard adjustement [after losing Julian]. The team has a lot of talent, so I didn't think it was going to be as difficult as it's been. Everybody's roles changed a little bit. It's taken us a little while to bounce back."
But bounce back they have in brilliant fashion, reeling off five straight wins while climbing back into contention in the ever-tightening NEC race.
From heavy favorties to comeback kids, the Blackbirds (10-10, 5-3 NEC) have made a habit of getting down early, only to come roaring past the opposition, as evidenced by last Thursday night's Battle of Brooklyn triumph on Remsen Street and Saturday afternoon's thrilling 79-78 victory at NEC-leading Bryant in Smithfield, R.I.
LIU-Brooklyn was down 14 points early in the second half of its always-heated encounter with St. Francis Brooklyn at the Pope Center, putting the Blackbirds in peril of falling three games behind the Terriers (8-11, 4-4) in the standings. But senior guard C.J. Garner scored 17 of his game-high 22 points after intermission, hitting all but four of his 11 3-point attempts, as LIU pulled out its third consecutive Battle of Brooklyn victory.
Garner earned his second career Lai-Lynch MVP Award for the annual game as he also drained the game-winning jumper in the final second of regulation at the Pope Center during his sophomore campaign.
Fellow fourth-year starter Jamal Olasewere played the second-half hero at Bryant, delivering 15 of his game-high 19 points after the break as the Blackbirds erased a 12-point deficit en route to a one-point win.
"He's as competitive as they come. I'm so glad we have him. I'm so fortunate to have him," gushed Perri of Olasewere in a recent TV interview. "Not having Julian has been hard for him. He's a very tempermental kid. But that's part of why he's so good."
Next up for the surging Blackbirds is Thursday night's visit by St. Francis (Pa.), followed by Saturday's Hall of Fame Day showdown with Robert Morris at the WRAC.
It's been a steady ascension from NEC basement to one game out of first place for Perri's crew, which hasn't lost since an 86-76 setback to Wagner in Downtown Brooklyn on Jan. 10, ending the Blackbirds' 31-game home winning streak. The Blackbirds have proven time and again this season that they might get down, but can never be counted out.
As if the loss to their neighborhood rivals on their home floor wasn't disappointing enough, the Terriers endured an even harder-to-swallow defeat Saturday at Central Connecticut State, dropping a 72-70 decision when sophomore guard Brent Jones' potential game-winning 3-pointer clanged off the rim as time expired.
Sophomore forward Jalen Cannon notched his ninth double-double for the season with 18 points and 14 rebounds for St. Francis Brooklyn, which has dropped three of its last four games.
The Terriers will try to get back in the win column Thursday night when they host Robert Morris at the Pope.
Brooklyn native Jeffrey Noel converted a three-point play with 23 seconds remaining as the Bulldogs of Brooklyn College pulled out a dramatic 81-80 victory at CUNYAC rival York College on Monday night.
Noel, who finished with 18 points and a team-high seven rebounds, erased an 80-78 deficit with a driving layup and hit the ensuing free throw to put BC up by one. The Cardinals failed to get off a potential winning shot as time expired, giving the Bulldogs a 4-6 mark in conference play and a 6-12 ledger overall this season.
Freshman swingman Egzon Gjonbalaj, a product of Brooklyn's FDR High School, had 18 points and six boards against York, earning CUNYAC Rookie of the Week honors.
The Bulldogs will get back to the hardwood Wednesday night against Medgar Evers at the West Quad Center.
NYU-Poly freshman Brendan Gallagher was named the Skyline Conference's Rookie of the Week for the second straight time on Tuesday after averaging 11.3 points and 8.3 rebounds over three games for the Jays.
Not all was lost for St. Francis during the Battle of Brooklyn as the Lady Terriers used a balanced attack to stomp LIU-Brooklyn 69-58 at the WRAC on Monday night.
Reigning NEC Rookie of the Week Leah Fechko led four St. Francis players in double figures with a career-high 18 points and nine rebounds as the Terriers improved to 7-12 overall and 4-4 in conference play.
Fechko was named the game's MVP, marking the first time a St. Francis player has earned the distinction since Kara Ayers led the Terriers past the Blackbirds back in 2009.
“I'm proud of the girls and the way we played tonight,” said first-year St. Francis coach John Thurston. “We came out with much more intensity on both ends of the floor. Our defense, especially in the first half, was exceptional. Tonight's victory was a team-victory and we'll continue to build upon tonight's effort moving forward.”
The Terriers will try to climb above the .500 mark in NEC play when they host St. Francis (Pa.) at the Pope on Saturday afternoon.
The Lady Bulldogs of Brooklyn College reeled off their season-high fifth straight win Monday night in Jamaica, N.Y., toppling CUNYAC rival York College behind 15 points from reigning NEC Player of the Week Brittany Bowen.
Bowen scored 15 points and Vanessa D'Ambrosi of Park Slope's Bishop Ford High School added 14 for BC, which is 14-5 overall and 8-2 in CUNYAC action.
The red-hot Bulldogs host borough rival Medgar Evers Wednesday at 5 p.m.
Freshman guard Alyssa D'Apice scored 27 points Tuesday night as the Lady Jays of NYU-Poly beat Sage Colleges, 60-55.
D'Apice hit 7-of-13 shots from the floor and went 10-of-14 at the line for the Jays, who will host Farmingdale State on Thursday.