By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
C.J. Garner is saving his best for last.
The senior guard refused to let LIU-Brooklyn's dream of an unprecedented third consecutive Northeast Conference Tournament title end Wednesday night before a crowd of 1,006 at Downtown's Wellness Recreation and Athletic Center.
Garner, who scored a career-high 30 points in last Saturday's critical regular season-ending win over Quinnipiac at the WRAC, duplicated the figure against the Bobcats in the NEC Tournament semifinals, lifting the three-peat hungry Blackbirds to a 91-83 victory and into Saturday's semifinal round against No. 2 Wagner in Staten Island.
Likely playing his last home game as a Blackbird, Garner, who began the NEC schedule with a two-game suspension for his part in an on-campus brawl prior to the campaign, poured in 18 of his 30 points after intermission as LIU erased a nine-point disadvantage in the final eight minutes of regulation.
The 5-foot-10 Maryland native stepped up big when NEC Player of the Year Jamal Olasewere (20 points, six rebounds, four assists) fouled out with 3 1/2 minutes left and the game deadlocked at 80-80.
After senior Brandon Thompson hit a pair of clutch free throws to snap the tie, Garner drained a jumper that gave LIU an 84-80 lead with 94 seconds to play.
Junior point guard Jason Brickman finished with 10 points and seven assists, knocking down five of six free throws down the stretch to move the Blackbirds within two wins of a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
First-year head coach Jack Perri's resilient squad would likely be going home early if Garner hadn't become the first LIU player since Antawn Dobie in February of 2002 to put together back-to-back 30-point performances.
"C.J. came to me when I fouled out and he said, 'I got you.' The kid took over," Olaswere noted.
"I have to be someone the rest of the team can depend on," added Garner, who will try to lead LIU past Wagner and into the NEC Championship Game for the third time in as many years.
The Blackbirds dropped both of their regular-season meetings with the rival Seahawks, including a 94-92 setback in S.I. on Feb. 24.
Unfortunately, Downtown's other NEC Tournament participant, St. Francis Brooklyn, won't be joining LIU in the semifinals.
The Terriers had a rough night in Moon Township, Pa., Wednesday, dropping a 73-57 decision to top-seeded Robert Morris, the team the Blackbirds vanquished in the previous NEC title games.
Sophomore forward Jalen Cannon scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds and senior guard Dre Calloway closed out his career with a season-high 14 points off the bench, but St. Francis committed 17 turnovers, resulting in 20 points for the Colonials.
RMU will host No. 5 Mount St. Mary's Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in the other NEC semfinal, hoping to reach their fifth consecutive championship game.
LIU's showdown with Wagner will be televised at high noon Saturday on MSG2, ESPN3 and Fox College Sports Network.
The winners of the semifinals will square off Tuesday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN2 on the home court of the higher-seeded team.