By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Despite a trying, and at times frustrating, regular season, "3" remains the magic number for LIU-Brooklyn's men's basketball team.
The two-time defending Northeast Conference Tournament champions will begin their quest to capture an unprecedented third consecutive league title Wednesday night at Downtown's Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center against Quinnipiac after knocking off the Bobcats, 96-90, on Saturday behind Herculian Senior Day performances by star forward Jamal Olasewere and shooting guard C.J. Garner.
First-year coach Jack Perri mandated prior to the campaign that the Blackbirds' lone quest this season was to become the first-ever NEC champion to "three-peat".
But that was before former coach Jim Ferry's longtime assistant knew he'd be missing Olasewere and Garner for the Blackbirds' first two NEC contests due to a school-imposed suspension and would lose reigning NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd to a season-ending knee injury before conference play began.
"This is a tremendous opportunity to build upon what we, as a team, have already accomplished," noted Perri, who was instrumental in helping LIU-Brooklyn capture its first-ever back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament as Ferry's top recruiter and assistant the past two years before assuming head coaching duties after Ferry's departure to Duquesne.
The Blackbirds, who raised the championship trophy on their home floor in each of the previous two campaigns, will likely only get one home contest in the eight-team, single-elimination tourney this time around. And even that home date was in doubt before Olasewere, a strong candidate for NEC Player of the Year honors, and Garner fueled a game-saving second-half run against the Bobcats on Saturday.
Olaswere finished with a career-best 33 points and 10 rebounds while Garner poured in 16 of his career-high 30 points after intermission as LIU overcame a nine-point second-half deficit to earn the No. 3 seed.
Junior point guard Jason Brickman handed out 12 assists for the Blackbirds, who earned a regular-season series split with Quinnipiac after dropping an 82-74 decision to the Connecticut-based school on Jan. 5. That loss was the fifth of a season-high six straight for LIU, which rebounded to win all but three of its final 15 contests.
Olasewere ended the season ranked third in the NEC in scoring at 19.2 points per game while averaging 9.2 rebounds. Brickman led the entire nation in assists with 8.5 per contest, and figures to bolster those eye-popping numbers against the Bobcats after racking up 19 helpers in the first two meetings between the teams.
The Blackbirds won't be alone in representing Downtown during the race for the NCAA Tournament as St. Francis Brooklyn earned the right to take on top-seeded Robert Morris in Wednesday's opening round with Saturday night's 92-80 virtual elimination game victory against Sacred Heart on Remsen Street.
Junior guard Ben Mockford scored 22 points, senior Akeem Johnson suprassed the 1,000-point plateau for his career with 15 and sophomore Jalen Cannon added 15 points and eight boards as the Terriers earned their third berth in as many seasons under coach Glenn Braica.
As the No. 8 seed, St. Francis is a long shot to knock off RMU, which lost the NEC title game at LIU-Brooklyn in each of the last two NEC Tournaments. The Colonials, who have reached the NEC Final in each of the last four years, winning the crown in 2009 and 2010, were, however, beaten soundly by the Terriers, 71-61, at the Pope Center on Jan. 31 in the lone regular-season encounter between the schools.
"I think if we get in, given how balanced the league is, we are good enough to win it," noted Braica before the Terriers' win over Sacred Heart.
The winners of Wednesday night's games will advance to the semifinal round on Saturday at the home court of the highest remaining seeds.
A regular season-ending 73-54 loss to top-seeded Quinnipiac at the Pope Center on Monday night hardly quelled the enthusiasm of the St. Francis Brooklyn women's team, which will return to the NEC Tournament for the first time since 2008 next Sunday at No. 2 Sacred Heart in Fairfield, Conn.
First-year coach John Thurston's unit lost four in a row to close the campaign, but will doubtlessly look upon 2012-13 as a breakthrough season regardless of how it fares in the league championships after finishing at or near the bottom of the pack in the NEC for half a decade.
The Terriers scored the first of their eight conference wins this season at Sacred Heart on Jan. 5 behind 15 points from sophomore guard Eilidh Simpson, but dropped the rematch on Remsen Street, 57-53, last Saturday afternoon.
Spearheaded by Simpson, fellow sophomores Sarah Benedetti and Jessica Kaufman and freshman sensation Leah Fechko, the Terriers figure to be a fixture at the season-ending tournament for years to come under Thurston.
Though they failed to qualify for the NEC Tournament, the LIU-Brooklyn women's team finished the regular season on a high note at the WRAC on Monday.
Senior Night honorees Krystal Wells and Tamika Guz went out as winners, combining for 31 points as the Blackbirds knocked off Sacred Heart, 73-68.
LIU finished the season 7-22 overall and 4-14 against NEC opponents after qualifying for the conference tournament in each of the previous three campaigns under coach Gail Striegler.
The Brooklyn College women's team fell short in its bid to capture its first-ever ECAC Metro Basketball Championship on Sunday afternoon at the West Quad Center, suffering a 67-62 loss to No. 2 Hartwick in the final.
Senior guard Brittany Bowen scored a game-high 19 points and junior Vanessa D'Ambrosi, a Bishop Ford alum, added 15 for the Lady Bulldogs, who will return nine players from a team that finished 24-7 overall and 14-2 against CUNYAC opponents this season.
In local high school girls' basketball news, the Bishop Kearney varsity defeated St. John's Prep, 44-33, on Saturday to win the Brooklyn/Queens Diocesan Championship.
Sophomore Jennifer Kaye scored 14 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, junior point guard Emily Hiltunen had seven points, eight boards and seven assists and junior guard Christina Heyer added nine points for the champs.
On the local boys' PSAL AA scene, the Final Four for the city championships is set for next Sunday at CCNY in Manhattan.
Top-seeded Lincoln beat East New York Transit Tech, 56-40, on Saturday at St. John's University and will meet No. 4 Wings Academy in the city semifinals this weekend. Wings beat a pair of Brooklyn schools, No. 13 Brooklyn Collegiate and No. 5 South Shore, to set up its showdown with the highly touted Railsplitters.
The Orange Wave of Jefferson punched its ticket to the semis with Saturday's thrilling triple-overtime quarterfinal victory over Cardozo on Saturday in Jamaica, N.Y.
Senior Nazai Stokes scored 20 points for the Wave, who are on track to return to the city title game at Madison Square Garden after losing to Boys and Girls in last year's final.
Read next week's Eagle or log on to BrooklynEagle.com for a full recap of the PSAL Final Four and a look ahead to the city championship game at MSG.