The Best Ever: Brooklyn’s Blackbirds complete historic NEC Championship ‘Three-Peat’
Nets were cut down. Trophies were hoisted. Confetti flew.
History was made within the confines of the Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center Tuesday night as LIU-Brooklyn staked its undisputed claim as the greatest basketball dynasty the Northeast Conference has ever seen.
Tournament MVP C.J. Garner scored a career-high 31 points, NEC Player of the Year Jamal Olasewere added 15 points and 10 rebounds and the nation’s assists leader, Jason Brickman, finished with seven points and eight helpers as the indomitable, resilient Blackbirds became the first squad in the 32-year history of the league to earn three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament with a convincing 91-70 rout of Mount St. Mary’s before a decibel level-breaking crowd of 1,700 at The WRAC.
“I’m very emotional right now because of what we went through,” first-year LIU coach Jack Perri admitted, citing an ugly September skirmish that resulted in suspensions for four of his key players before the season even began and the loss of 2012 NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd to a knee injury prior to the start of conference play. as potential roadblocks to the Blackbirds’ ultimate goal.
“(It was a) totally different book than the last two years, totally different story,” added Perri, who had been former coach Jim Ferry’s top assistant and recruiter for the LIU squads that captured the previous two NEC titles. “Everything went right the last two years and this year they had to show their true colors. For me to be able to be the leader of that group, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
The Blackbirds, who also endured a season-high six-game losing streak shortly after Boyd tore his ACL in December, had to play from behind early against the more-than-game Mountaineers, winners of their previous nine straight contests.
Sam Prescott and All-Tournament Selection Rashad Whack came out on fire in the opening stanza, killing LIU’s packed-in defense with a bevy of 3-pointers to take a 28-25 lead with 9:24 left before intermission. Moments later, Olasewere picked up his second foul, forcing Perri to put him on the bench for the remainder of the half.
But much as they have done all season long, the Blackbirds’ improvisation turned into perfection as they went on a game-changing 21-6 run bridging the two halves to open a 52-37 cushion with 13:41 to play on freshman E.J. Reed’s 3-pointer of a feed from Olasewere.
“[The big run] started with the last few minutes when knucklehead (a.k.a. Olasewere) over here got his second foul,” Perri jibed. “We changed up to a 2-3 zone and really extended it to take away those 3-point shots. Jamal wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of his winning a third straight title. Jason did a wonderful job of running the offense. I trust these guys so much.”
“Me and C.J. talked about everything we’ve been through from the suspensions, your player of the year goes down — it could have gone both ways,” added Olasewere, who refused to to let his LIU career come to a close without another shot at March Madness. “We knew this one was personal.”
He and his mother chanted “Three-Peat!” along with the rest of the capacity crowd, which filtered onto the floor following the final buzzer.
As for Garner, the senior shooting guard certainly made a strong closing argument for his place in LIU lore. With 84 combined points in the Blackbirds’ three wins, he fell just two points shy of the all-time NEC Tournament scoring record.
“He took his game to another level,” gushed Perri, who became just the third first-year coach to grab the NEC crown. “He’s had it in him all along. He did it when he needed to do it. He was always the guy who never got the recognition. I’m glad he finally got it. He’s as good as anybody in this league and he’s a tremendous scorer.”
“I think it was just a sense of urgency,” Garner said of his late-season scoring spurt. “Julian went down and the suspensions. We had to fight through a lot of adversity.”
With Garner, Olasewere, Brandon Thompson, Booker Hucks, Kenny Onyechi, and perhaps even Boyd — pending his quest for an added year of eligibility in 2013-14 — gone following the upcoming NCAAs, Perri wasn’t shy about reveling in his senior class’ accomplishments.
“When I first got the [head coaching] job, I talked about doing this and being the best ever,” he revealed. “That’s what we called it, ‘The Best Ever’. That was our goal. I’m so proud of them. For the character they showed throughout the year with all the adversity that we faced. The leadership is unbelievable. It was remarkable. I wasn’t sure which way it would go when we lost six in a row, but these men showed me what they were made of. It was awesome.”
Olasewere, who figures to get at least a look-see from NBA scouts as the next phase of his hoops career begins next month, was also awash in the glory of completing the Blackbirds’ mandate.
“Ever since last year, history has really been on the board (for us),” the 6-foot-7 slasher noted. “We really wanted to come back and create history. We had minor setbacks but we’re a family. They wrote us off but we came back and did what we had to do and we made history.”
Of course, there’s some more potential history to be made following Selection Sunday, when the Blackbirds will find out who they’ll take on in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament.
As far as Perri is concerned, LIU is ready to take on all comers in the Field of 68.
“Nope. I really don’t,” he conceded when asked if he was pondering where the Blackbirds would be seeded. “We’ve had some pretty rough losses during the year, so I would imagine a play-in game is claerly an option, and if it is, that’s fine. We’ll take whoever we get and have confidence with these guys no matter who we play.”
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