By John Torenli
Mission accomplished! Now, it’s on to the next one for LIU-Brooklyn. And maybe even the one after that.
Moments after dominating Robert Morris in the Northeast Conference title game Wednesday night at Downtown’s Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center, the two-time champion Blackbirds were already looking forward to making some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
The 90-73 victory over the Colonials came much easier than last year’s 85-82 overtime triumph against RMU. But that didn’t temper the wild mid-court celebration of the 1,700 fans, including Brooklyn filmmaker Spike Lee, that followed the final buzzer.
“We set a goal to try to accomplish something and become a great team,” said 10th-year LIU coach Jim Ferry. “To do it back-to-back ... is pretty special. Heck, even Spike Lee showed up.”
NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd earned tournament MVP honors after putting up 18 points and 10 rebounds. Junior guard C.J. Garner poured in a team-high 21 points as the Blackbirds placed five scorers in double figures.
Basking in the glory of another trip to March Madness, Ferry confessed that his team had not yet reached its ultimate goal.
“I think we have the ability to beat someone [in the NCAA Tournament],” he noted after LIU’s 26th consecutive home win, a streak that is safe until next season. “A lot will depend on the seed and matchup.”
As a No. 15 seed, the Blackbirds were competitive throughout last year’s first-round loss to North Carolina, challenging the second-seeded Tar Heels deep into the second half before a combination of foul trouble and superior talent did them in.
But this year’s NEC champs appear to have perfected Ferry’s up-tempo style and the development of sophomore point guard Jason Brickman, who scored a career high-tying 18 points and added a championship-game record 11 assists Wednesday, makes them a legitimate threat to stun an unwitting opponent in the opening round.
“Jason, he’s the captain behind this ship,” said junior forward Jamal Olasewere, who won last year’s NEC Tournament MVP, but was limited to 12 points in the rematch with RMU due to foul trouble. “He’s the coach on the floor. Without him we couldn’t do this.”
Colonials coach Andrew Toole admitted that his team simply couldn’t keep up with the Blackbirds’ frenetic pace.
“We tried to play LIU basketball against LIU — and they’re better at it,” Toole said. “We tried to run up and down. We took quick shots.”
Lee, a diehard Knicks fan and a supporter of virtually every New York-area team, was a bit nervous before the opening tip, according to Ferry.
“He didn’t want to be the jinx,” Ferry revealed of his pre-game chat with the Do the Right Thing writer-director. “He said we better win.”
It didn’t take long for Lee’s fears to be allayed.
The Blackbirds overcame an early 19-15 deficit with a 13-0 run to take the lead for good. LIU held a 39-31 advantage at intermission, turning the final 20 minutes into an extended celebration before Blackbird Nation hit the court for a dance before the Big Dance.
“It’s definitely a great feeling to be able to repeat,” Garner said after LIU secured its fourth NCAA Tournament berth, joining the 1984, 1997 and 2011 teams. “But we still have work to do.”
At approximately 6 p.m. on Sunday, the Blackbirds will know their first-round opponent for next week’s opener. And unlike last March, they’ll know what to expect and don’t figure to be daunted by the national spotlight.
“I’m hoping it’s this year,” Ferry said of knocking off a first-round foe. “You win an NCAA tournament game, you hope to win the next one.”