By John Torenli
Capturing the Northeast Conference regular-season title, matching the program record for league wins, earning the circuit’s automatic bid to the NIT and living up to their No. 1 status entering the season were all impressive accomplishments for the defending NEC champion Blackbirds of LIU-Brooklyn.
Now all coach Jim Ferry’s team has to do is avoid suffering a letdown in the NEC Tournament, which will kick off Thursday night at the Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center (WRAC), with the top-seeded Blackbirds hosting No. 8 Sacred Heart at 7 p.m.
“It’s very hard to repeat. I don’t care what league you’re in. This is the best the league has been in 10 years,” Ferry noted prophetically prior to the campaign, which saw LIU finish 22-8 with a 16-2 mark against NEC foes to edge second-seeded Wagner (24-5, 15-3 NEC) for its second straight regular-season title.
Last season, the “Cinderella” Blackbirds won 13 games in a row, including a dramatic overtime victory against Robert Morris at the WRAC, which catapulted them into their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1997.
LIU gave national powerhouse North Carolina all it could handle in the opening round of the NCAAs before succumbing to the Tar Heels late in the second half.
With expectations running high entering this campaign, the Blackbirds had the proverbial “bull’s eye” on their backs.
But buoyed by Ferry’s hunger for another crown and a roster stocked with All-NEC selections, LIU has proven itself a worthy champion, even if its toughest challenges still lie ahead.
“We’re trying to win another championship,” said Ferry, who found out yesterday morning that forward Julian Boyd was named NEC Player of the Year along with sharing first-team all-league honors with fellow junior Jamal Olasewere.
“It’s not like we sit back and think this is an easy ride,” the 10th-year coach added.
That “ride” figures to become a bit more perilous Thursday night against the Pioneers, who lost a couple of narrow decisions to the Blackbirds during the regular season, but are certainly capable of becoming the first-ever No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1 in NEC Tournament history.
Sacred Heart, back in the eight-team shootout for the first time in three seasons following a 14-17 campaign, including an 8-10 mark in league play, might be inspired by what it saw from LIU on Saturday.
Having wrapped up the regular-season crown with Thursday’s 91-80 victory over Fairleigh Dickinson, the Blackbirds hardly looked like defending champs during Saturday’s 106-78 loss at Monmouth.
The humbling defeat snapped LIU’s eight-game winning streak — hardly the type of performance that inspires confidence heading into the league championships.
Boyd scored a team-high 17 points for the Blackbirds, who committed 23 turnovers and fell for the first time since a 75-66 setback to Robert Morris on Jan. 26.
One clear advantage LIU holds entering the tournament is its dominance in Downtown Brooklyn.
The Blackbirds have reeled off 24 consecutive wins on their home court, the second-longest streak in the entire nation, and will not have to leave Flatbush Avenue before heading off to the NITs or NCAAs next month.
Sophomore point guard Jason Brickman, who earned second-team All-NEC honors, had been quarterbacking the Blackbirds’ high-scoring offense to perfection before being limited to only four assists while committing three turnovers Saturday.
The rare loss will either go down as a minor footnote in a second straight championship season, or be remembered as a harbinger of tough times to come for a program determined to bring big-time college basketball back to our fair borough.
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The Blackbirds won’t be alone in pursuing an invite to March Madness for Brooklyn as St. Francis College hosts its NEC Tournament opener at the Pope Center on Thursday night against Quinnipiac.
Brooklyn native Glenn Braica, who yesterday was named the NEC’s Coach of the Year, guided the Terriers to a surprising 15-14 record, including 12-6 in the NEC, to grab the tournament’s No. 4 seed and at least one home game.
Picked to finish 11th in the preseason coaches’ poll, St. Francis instead posted its top NEC mark since 2003-04 and is hosting a tournament game for the first time in 15 years.
Still seeking their first-ever NCAA Tournament invite after more than a century of competition, the Terriers should have some confidence after sweeping the Bobcats (17-12, 10-8) in a pair of games this season, including a one-point thriller on Remsen Street on Jan. 5.
The Terriers, however, will also be entering the tournament on a down note after shooting a dismal 28 percent from the floor during Saturday’s regular-season finale — a 45-44 defeat to FDU in Hackensack, N.J.
Freshman sensation Jalen Cannon tied the conference season-high with 20 rebounds, as there were plenty of balls falling off the rim, and fellow first-year player Kevin Douglas scored a season-high 14 points in his second career start.
The season-low point total was certainly the product of Braica sitting two of his biggest contributors, senior sharpshooter Stefan Perunicic and junior forward Travis Nichols, both of whom will be suited up and ready to go against Quinnipiac.
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The Bulldogs of Brooklyn College were unable to capture their third CUNYAC Championship and Division III NCAA Tournament berth in four years, but they will be competing in a playoff tourney tonight.
The Bulldogs, who fell to York College in overtime during the CUNYAC Tournament quarterfinals two weeks ago, will host Rutgers-Newark at the West Quad Center in the opening round of the eight-team Eastern College Athletic Conference Division III Metro Tournament.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
This marks the second ECAC bid for BC under head coach Steven Podias, who will try to help his team avenge a loss to the Scarlet Raiders in the same tournament in 2008, after which the Bulldogs won back-to-back CUNYAC crowns.
Brooklyn is led by its CUNYAC All-Star Second Team back-court tandem of seniors Amil John and Tyshawn Russell.
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Though they failed to qualify for post-season play, the men of the NYU-Polytechnic hoops squad did have some breakthrough performances this season.
None bigger than the effort of freshman Evan Azzam, who this week was named the Skyline Conference’s Rookie of the Year.
Azzam, who arrived Downtown via Los Angeles, helped the Jays to a respectable 4-7 record over their final 11 games after Poly ended an embarrassing 48-game losing streak.
The 5-foot-9 guard averaged 12.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while leading the team in minutes played.
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LIU women’s basketball coach Gail Striegler watched her squad secure the sixth seed in the NEC Tournament with Monday night’s come-from-behind 70-67 victory at FDU.
The win set up the Blackbirds (21-9, 10-8 NEC) for a first-round encounter at No. 3 Monmouth on Saturday at 4 p.m.
After senior Ashley Palmer eclipsed the 2,000-point mark for her career in Saturday’s tough 55-54 loss to the rival Hawks, junior Ebony Davis made sure LIU would arrive in West Long Branch, N.J., off a win.
The third-year forward scored a career-high 26 points and ripped down 14 rebounds Monday as the Blackbirds bolstered their chances of capturing their first NEC Tournament title since 2001.
LIU also lost to Monmouth on Alumni Day at the WRAC back on Jan. 14.
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The St. Francis women ended their season with a 66-61 loss at Monmouth on Monday night, finishing 4-25 overall, including 3-15 in NEC play.
Sophomore guard Jasmin Robinson scored 16 points, grabbed six rebounds and handed out four assists for the Terriers, who should improve on their record next year as their young, talented roster continues to develop.
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The Lady Bulldogs of Brooklyn College suffered a crushing 65-49 loss to defending CUNYAC champion Baruch on Saturday in the league’s championship game at CCNY.
Seeded first in the eight-team field and coming off an undefeated season in conference play, the Bulldogs squandered a 10-point halftime lead by shooting an inexplicable 22 percent (8-of-36) over the final 20 minutes.
Freshman Nicole Francomano finished the game with a team-high 15 points for the Bulldogs, who are still seeking their first-ever Division III NCAA Tournament appearance.
Despite the bad news on Saturday, the BC women did get an invite to participate in the ECAC D-III tourney alongside the men’s squad.
The Bulldogs, seeded fourth, will host No. 5 SUNY-Old Westbury tonight at the West Quad Center at 5:30 p.m.
Coach Alex Lang’s squad may have come up short in its bid for the CUNYAC title, but they also record the first 20-win season in the history of the program.
The Bulldogs also received two selections to the CUNYAC All-Star First Team squad in seniors Justine O’Callahan and Lauren Plagainos.
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NYU-Poly senior Margaux Pickell was named to the Skyline Conference Women’s Basketball First Team All-Conference squad, while sophomore Tabitha Larsen was selected to the second team.
Pickell recently finished an outstanding career at NYU-Poly, which saw her become the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,658 points and 1,311 rebounds. She also ended her career with the Lady Jays ranked No. 1 in blocked shots with 168, swatting 68 this year alone.
Last year, Pickell earned Skyline Player of the Year honors for leading the Lady Jays to a second-place regular-season finish. This year, she was edged out by Mount Saint Mary senior Jen Mocanu.
Larsen earns her first All-Conference award as a Lady Jay, after a solid season at the point. The sophomore averaged four assists per game and over nine points. She was key in spurring the Lady Jays to a second-half rebound that nearly saw NYU-Poly make the Skyline playoffs.
The conference coaches also selected NYU-Poly as the winner of the team Sportsmanship Award.