By John Torenli
Down but never out, the LIU-Brooklyn men’s basketball team faced an eight-point deficit with just over seven minutes to play in Sunday’s Northeast Conference semifinal showdown against upset-minded Quinnipiac before 1,327 nervous fans at the Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center.
Rather than cave in to the panic or frustration that comes along with seeing a dream season potentially go up in flames, the ever-resilient, top-seeded Blackbirds instead relied on the intangible that made them champions of the league last March: Poise under tremendous duress.
“We never want to give up no matter how much we’re down,” said NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd after lifting LIU to a come-from-behind 78-75 victory, thrusting his team into its second straight title game against visiting Robert Morris tonight at The WRAC (7 p.m., ESPN2).
Boyd finished with 21 points, including a key 3-pointer and conventional three-point play during a game-saving 18-5 run that put the Blackbirds on the brink of their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance following a 14-year drought.
This evening’s winner-take-all showdown with Robert Morris is a rematch of last year’s wild 85-82 overtime victory in the NEC Final over the Colonials, who are appearing in their fourth consecutive championship game.
“I think it’s going to be a very difficult challenge for us,” admitted LIU coach Jim Ferry, who watched his squad suffer a 75-66 loss to RMU in Moon Township, Pa., on Jan. 26 before reeling off nine straight wins to grab a second straight NEC regular-season crown.
Junior Jamal Olasewere, the MVP of last year’s NEC title game, was plagued by foul trouble throughout Sunday’s semifinal against the Bobcats, but Boyd, sophomore point guard Jason Brickman and junior Kenny Onyechi stepped up down the stretch to keep LIU’s hopes of a return to March Madness alive.
“I thought our guys showed unbelievable character, played with fantastic poise,” Ferry gushed in the post-game press conference. “I’m just proud to be the coach of these guys. The fortitude that they showed tonight.”
Brickman finished with 18 points, Olasewere added 13 and junior C.J. Garner had 11 for the Blackbirds, who flexed their muscles on the boards against one of the top rebounding teams in the nation.
Boyd and Olasewere combined for 16 of LIU’s 78 rebounds, which were three more than the Bobcats managed during a grueling game that saw the Blackbirds make 20-of-30 free throws compared to a 5-of-10 performance by RMU.
“That something that we always emphasize, especially against them,” Boyd said of LIU’s aggressiveness driving to the basket and ferocity on the glass.
With an NIT bid already wrapped up based on its regular-season performance, LIU must now call on its cool under pressure before what should be another packed house at Brooklyn’s home base for college basketball.
“It is gonna take exactly what we had to do today to win that basketball game,” Ferry said of the NEC Final. “We need to play with great poise, we need to trust each other, we need to play better than we did at Robert Morris. They outplayed us at their place.”
No one has outplayed the Blackbirds in their backyard this season, or in recent memory.
LIU enters the championship tilt with a 26-game home winning streak, the second-longest run in the entire nation behind Kentucky (52 games).
So if the Blackbirds find themselves down in the second half again tonight, Ferry won’t be screaming on the bench or calling timeouts to slow RMU’s momentum.
Instead, he will simply rely on the recipe that earned his team a prime-time slot in the national spotlight 12 months ago.
“We really keep our poise. There’s no anxiety in the huddle,” he revealed.
Make sure to read Friday’s Eagle for a full recap of the NEC Final or log on to www.brooklyneagle.com
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Before fading down the stretch against LIU-Brooklyn on Flatbush Avenue Sunday, Quinnipiac did some damage on Remsen Street last Thursday night.
The Bobcats ended St. Francis’ hopes of its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid with an 80-72 triumph over the stunned Terriers before 875 fans at the Pope Physical Education Center.
Sophomore guard Brent Jones, a graduate of Brooklyn’s Bedford Academy, scored a career-high 21 points and sophomore sensation Ben Mockford added 17 for St. Francis, which was ultimately undone by a 20-3 Bobcats run to close the first half.
Trailing 41-31 at the break, the Terriers did battle back to within one on senior Stefan Perunicic’s 3-pointer with 11:46 remaining. But Quinnipiac senior James Johnson, who scored a game-high 22 points, spearheaded a 13-0 run to put St. Francis away for good.
Picked to finish 11th in the NEC prior to the campaign, St. Francis instead earned the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament, hosting its first postseason contest in 15 years.
Though the final result was disappointing, the Terriers have to be pleased at the direction they’re headed under Brooklyn native Glenn Braica, who was named the NEC Coach of the Year after leading his young and growing squad to a second straight 15-15 season.
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Playing in their first Eastern College Athletic Conference championship game since 1973, the third-seeded Bulldogs of Brooklyn College suffered an 88-77 loss to No. 4 Mount Saint Mary College on Sunday in Galloway, N.J.
Having failed to capture their third CUNYAC title and Division III NCAA Tournament berth in four years last month, the Bulldogs (19-10) had a chance to grab their first ECAC crown in nearly 40 years.
Despite a game-high 31 points from senior guard Tyshawn Russell, BC was unable to overcome the Knights, who held a 46-32 rebounding advantage.
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Determined to go out a champion in the final year of her storied career at LIU-Brooklyn, senior Ashley Palmer instead was dealt a crushing 68-56 loss to Monmouth in the quarterfinals of the NEC Tournament in West Long Branch, N.J., on Saturday.
Palmer scored a team-high 18 points and grabbed six rebounds, but LIU’s all-time leader in those categories was denied her first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance as the Hawks opened a 24-point second-half lead and held on despite a furious late rally by the Blackbirds.
The second player in NEC history to score at least 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds, Palmer cleared both of those milestones during a brilliant senior season.
Fellow senior Kiara Evans, who set the program’s all-time and single-season assists record this year, also will say goodbye to Downtown Brooklyn, as will fellow fourth-year players MaryAnn Abrams, She'tiarra Pledger and Marika Sprow.
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The BC women also had their season conclude with a defeat as top-seeded Newark-Rutgers knocked the Bulldogs out of the ECAC Tournament semifinals with a 59-45 defeat on Saturday.
Junior Charnelle Saint Laurent scored a team-high 10 points for BC, which established a new program record with 22 wins this season under coach Alex Lang.