By John Torenli
The most important and highly anticipated Battle of Brooklyn game in recent memory – and perhaps ever — will be played in Manhattan Wednesday.
And we wouldn’t want it any other way.
With first place in the Northeast Conference and Downtown bragging rights on the line, defending NEC champion LIU-Brooklyn will take on surprising St. Francis College at Madison Square Garden. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. and the game will be televised via local cable on MSG Network for those who can’t make it in person.
“The World’s Most Famous Arena” provides the perfect setting for the opener of the annual home-and-home grudge match.
Though the Terriers (13-10 overall, 10-2 NEC) enter as the Cinderella story of the NEC season thus far, having been picked to finish 11th in the preseason coaches poll, coach Glenn Braica’s second-place squad is ready to make a bold statement against the top-rated Blackbirds (17-7, 11-1).
LIU, fresh off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 14 years, will try to derail host St. Francis’ season-high five-game winning streak before welcoming the Terriers to the Wellness Center on Sunday for the rematch.
According to Blackbirds coach Jim Ferry, the Garden is the ideal environment for an all-Brooklyn showdown – at least until the still-under-construction Barclays Center is complete.
But his players would welcome the chance to establish their Downtown dominance in any arena.
“We’ll play them in Tillary Park,” Ferry said. “I think it’s special as a New York basketball guy to have the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden. It’s awesome for our program. The NCAA Tournament against Carolina [last March] was special for us, but these Battle of Brooklyn games mean a lot to us.”
Braica, a candidate to succeed Ferry as the NEC Coach of the Year, has taken less than two seasons to turn the Terriers into serious contenders for their first NCAA Tournament appearance ever after more than a century of waiting.
The borough native is also anticipating a special atmosphere at MSG, where St. Francis lost a pair of games last season during the annual Holiday Festival.
“This is another tremendous opportunity to showcase our program on New York's biggest stage, Madison Square Garden,” Braica said. “Last year we had a great turnout from our fans and alumni when we participated in the Holiday Festival and I hope they will come out and support us again.”
LIU will officially be the road team in the initial meeting, which may serve St. Francis well since the Blackbirds have reeled off an eye-popping 21 consecutive home wins, including Saturday’s 95-80 rout of visiting Central Connecticut State.
Kenny Onyechi grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds and fellow juniors Jamal Olasewere (17 points) and Julian Boyd (16 points) helped LIU to its 12th victory in 13 games and fourth in a row overall.
The Terriers were also feasting on home cooking Saturday, ripping Bryant 80-67 at the Pope Center on Remsen Street.
Five Terriers scored in double-figures, including sophomore sharp-shooter Ben Mockford, who had 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting with five 3-pointers.
Senior Stefan Perunicic poured in 14 points, hitting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, as St. Francis sharpened up on its long-range assault, which should come in handy against the bigger, more athletic Blackbirds.
LIU swept the season series a season ago en route to an historic 27-6 campaign that saw them push the heavily favored Tar Heels in Charlotte, N.C., during their first tournament game since 1997.
Junior C.J. Garner played the hero in the finale of that home-and-home, drilling a running jumper at the buzzer to give LIU a dramatic 82-80 victory at the Pope Center. The sweep was the Blackbirds’ first in the series since the 2008-09 campaign.
The Terriers, who also dropped a 76-69 decision at The WRAC last February, pulled out a wild triple-overtime triumph at LIU in February 2010 for their last win in the series.
Whatever happens Wednesday, these rejuvenated rivals will be back at it again Sunday at 4:30 p.m., in our fair borough. And if that doesn’t settle matters, Tillary Park should be available first thing Monday morning.
In Other Brooklyn Sports News...
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Reigning CUNYAC Player of the Week Amil John, a graduate of South Shore High School, scored a game-high 23 points, handed out eight assists and pulled down six rebounds Monday night as Brooklyn College bested visiting Berkeley College, 83-78, at the West Quad Center.
John, who averaged 21.1 points, 6.7 steals, 6.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds while leading BC to two victories in three contests last week, also made 10-of-12 free throws against the Knights while picking up a pair of steals.
Kavon Baker added 17 points for the Bulldogs (15-7), who will visit CUNYAC South rival York College Wednesday at 8 p.m.
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Freshman Evan Azzam scored 21 of his 24 points in the first half en route to capturing his second Skyline Conference Rookie of the Week award, but NYU-Polytechnic suffered a 70-63 loss to Purchase College on Saturday afternoon at Downtown's Jacobs Gymnasium.
Senior Alex Westphal scored 12 points and junior Brendon Henry added 11 for the Jays.
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On the women’s side, LIU-Brooklyn made up for a porous shooting night (31 percent) by smothering visiting Bryant with a tenacious defense on Monday, emerging with a 50-41 victory at The WRAC.
Senior Ashley Palmer, eager to lead the Blackbirds to the NCAA Tournament during her final season, scored a game-high 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds as LIU won its second in a row to improve to 17-7 overall and 10-2 at home.
Junior Ebony Davis had eight points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots for the Blackbirds, who held Bryant to 21 percent shooting from the floor.
LIU will enjoy watching the men’s showdown Wednesday before hosting the Terriers at 2 p.m. Sunday in the opener of the Battle of Brooklyn doubleheader
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Freshman forward Jaymee Veney scored 17 points Monday night at the Pope Center, but it wasn’t enough as St. Francis dropped a 67-51 decision to Central Connecticut State.
First-year players Sarah Benedetti and Jessica Kaufman each had seven points and seven boards for the Terriers, who fell to 3-20 overall and 2-10 in NEC play.
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The Lady Bulldogs of Brooklyn College had their season-high eight-game winning streak snapped with Saturday afternoon’s 90-76 loss to visiting Richard Stockton at the West Quad Center.
Charnelle Saint Lauren scored 25 points for BC, which can get back in the win column Wednesday at York College.
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Senior Margaux Pickell scored a season-high 36 points and grabbed 18 rebounds to lead NYU-Poly to a 77-52 victory over Purchase at Jacobs Gym on Saturday.
The Lady Jays improved to 4-6 in Skyline Conference action.