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LIU soars, St. Francis crumbles in NEC basketball tournament

Blackbirds Top Sacred Heart, SFC Drought Continues with Stunning Defeat

March 3, 2016 By John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Joel Hernandez scored 22 points as LIU-Brooklyn kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive with an 84-73 quarterfinal victory at third-seeded Sacred Heart Wednesday night in Fairfield, Conn. Photo courtesy of LIU-Brooklyn Athletics

One Downtown Brooklyn men’s college hoops squad folded at a most inopportune moment Wednesday night in the Northeast Conference quarterfinals.

The other soared into the NEC semifinals with a chance to add to its rich tournament history.

Can you figure out which did what?

I knew that you could.

While LIU-Brooklyn held on for an impressive 84-73 triumph at third-seeded Sacred Heart on Wednesday night, the seemingly cursed St. Francis Brooklyn unit suffered yet another heartbreak in its ongoing quest to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the program’s history, falling to No. 5 Mount St. Mary’s, 60-51, at Remsen Street’s Pope Center.

“We didn’t play as well as we could today, but [I] give Mount credit, I thought that they did a really good job,” beleaguered Terriers head coach Glenn Braica admitted as SFC extended its ongoing drought by squandering a 14-point second-half advantage.

“They wore us down;” Braica added after watching helplessly as the Terriers went an unfathomable 7-for-28 from the field over the final 20 minutes en route to a first-round ousting.

Bolstered by the strong late-season performances of Tyreek Jewell, Yunus Hopkinson and Chris Hooper, the Terriers got hot down the stretch, winning six of their last seven regular-season contests to earn a home game in the tourney.

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Based on its effort over the first 20 minutes Wednesday night, SFC appeared poised to bury the disappointment of last year’s NEC Final loss on its home floor before a capacity crowd and national television audience.

The Terriers built a 34-24 halftime lead over the Mount, and were up 38-24 with just over 17 minutes remaining before going stone cold.

“I thought I should have probably subbed a little more in the second half,” admitted Braica, who shouldered most of the blame for the program’s latest gut punch.

“It doesn’t take away from the way I feel about these guys,” he noted. “These guys are a special group. They faced a lot of adversity this year and responded, and just fought every game, ended the season real well.  Unfortunately we didn’t get it done tonight.”

Hopkinson scored 18 points and Jewell added 12 for SFC, which remains the oldest program in the city to never have participated in March Madness.

“It’s been a good season, I’m going to miss the seniors,” said Hopkinson. “Guys are real upset right now, we thought we had it.”

The Blackbirds, on the other hand, did their share to keep Downtown Brooklyn’s hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid alive in Fairfield, Connecticut, building an early 20-point advantage Wednesday before holding off the hard-charging Pioneers.

Joel Hernandez scored 22 points on 10-of-19 shooting and fellow junior Iverson Fleming added a season-high 18 off the bench for LIU, which will visit top-seeded Wagner in Staten Island on Saturday for the semifinals.

“Obviously, to come on the road, [into a] great environment, I thought our guys came out very focused on the defensive end, we rebounded the basketball really, really well,” said LIU head coach Jack Perri, who was at the helm when the Blackbirds won the last of their NEC-record three consecutive league championships from 2010-2013.

“Great win for our guys,” Perri added. “We stayed strong, we stayed tough, we stayed confident.”

Martin Hermannsson had 13 points and six assists and Jerome Frink finished with 10 points and five boards for the Blackbirds, who have to feel good about their chances of knocking off the top-seeded Seahawks.

On Feb. 11 at the Wellness Center, LIU trounced Wagner, 82-69 behind 26 points and 14 rebounds from Frink. The Blackbirds also topped the Seahawks, 71-70, at the Spiro Center on Jan. 14, rallying from a 17-point, second-half deficit thanks to a career-best 27-point night from junior Aakim Saintil.

“When you’re in a playoff atmosphere, and it’s do-or-die, you should come out with a tough mindset,” said Perri.

Wagner is coming off Wednesday’s 59-50 triumph over defending NEC champion Robert Morris, and is doubtlessly eager to get its first win over LIU this season in the hopes of moving on to Monday night’s NEC Championship Game.

“It’s tournament time.  It’s win and move on,” said Seahawks head coach Bashir Mason. “So now our focus turns to the next game.”

If only the Terriers could say the same.

* * *

On the women’s side, Downtown’s Blackbirds will visit second-seeded Bryant University on Sunday at 1 p.m., in Smithfield, Rhode Island, in the quarterfinals of the NEC Tournament.

First-year LIU head coach Stephanie Oliver saw her unit clinch the No. 7 seed in the tournament Monday night at the Wellness Center with a 71-66 victory over Wagner.

Junior guard Shanovia Dove poured in 20 points for the Blackbirds, who snapped a four-game losing streak with the critical win.

Unfortunately, the SFC women’s squad did not qualify for the NECs after going 4-14 in conference play following their historic run to the NCAA Tournament a year ago.


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