By John Torenli
There was no questioning the size of LIU-Brooklyn’s heart during last Friday night’s season-ending NCAA Tournament loss to top-seeded Michigan State in Columbus, Ohio.
The size of their lineup was another story.
The Blackbirds, trying in vain to become the first-ever No. 16 seed to win an opening-round game after 111 teams had tried and failed, trailed by only five points at the half and hadn’t yet played their best basketball.
“I felt our guys really played their hearts out,” said LIU coach Jim Ferry, who brilliantly guided LIU back to the tournament for a second straight season after capturing its first Northeast Conference championship in 14 years last March. “We did a great job in the first half of really grinding it out.”
Unfortunately for Ferry’s resilient crew, they found themselves in the grinder soon after intermission en route to a humbling, but not devastating 89-67 loss to Michigan State, which will meet Louisville on Thursday night for the West Regional semifinals in Phoenix.
Draymond Green, the Spartans’ indomitable senior forward, posted a triple-double with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists as Michigan State’s fearsome front line dominated the interior, and every other square inch of the floor at Nationwide Arena over the final 20 minutes.
“In the second half I just felt at times they kind of overwhelmed us with their size,” admitted Ferry, who doesn’t boast a player over 6-foot-7 on his entire roster. “Whether it was scoring interior or just keeping them off the glass. We tried to change up a little bit, change up the flow, and they made some more shots.”
Junior Jamal Olasewere scored 17 points while NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd and fellow third-year starter C.J. Garner added 15 apiece for LIU, which watched a 42-37 halftime deficit swell to 66-50 midway through the second half.
Ferry, who pushed all week his belief that the Blackbirds could set a new standard for No. 16 seeds, admitted afterward that size ultimately mattered most against MSU.
“Those guys are monsters,” Ferry said. “They’re really good players, and they’re really skilled. That’s why they’re a No. 1 seed.”
Rather than sulk over their failure to make history, the Blackbirds instead chose to relish what they had accomplished by repeating as NEC champs, going undefeated on their home floor and at least testing the perennial Final Four contender Spartans.
Legendary MSU coach Tom Izzo took notice of LIU’s resolve.
"I really like that team," he said. "They were really, really good. I told our guys at halftime that we were in trouble. I really thought we might lose this game."
Sophomore point guard Jason Brickman was limited to five points, seven assists and five turnovers in 39 grueling minutes. But Brickman, Boyd, Olasewere and Garner hope to return to the NCAAs for a third straight year in 2013, pushing hard for a higher seed and the first tournament win in school history.
“Somebody’s going to eventually do it,” Olasewere said of a No. 16 seed toppling a No. 1 in the opening round. “Maybe we’ll get another chance next year.”