Blackbirds reign supreme in Brooklyn battle
Blow out neighborhood rival terriers to advance to NEC semifinals
Long Island University (LIU) Brooklyn men’s head basketball coach Derek Kellogg insisted throughout his first season at the Downtown school that there isn’t much of a competitive gap between the 10 teams in the Northeast Conference (NEC).
That notion of league-wide parity wasn’t in evidence Wednesday night at the Steinberg Wellness Center, where Kellogg’s fourth-seeded Blackbirds steamrolled past No. 5 St. Francis Brooklyn, 73-50, in front of a bipartisan crowd of 1,173 in the NEC Tournament quarterfinals.
However, Kellogg’s views on NEC proved prophetic in two other tournament games Wednesday as No. 7 Robert Morris ousted second-seeded Mount St. Mary’s and No. 6 Fairleigh Dickinson took out No. 3 Saint Francis University.
The result of those two upsets was an unexpected home-court advantage for the Blackbirds when they host FDU Saturday at high noon here on Flatbush Avenue for a berth in the NEC Championship Game.
“There’s as much parity as I’ve ever been involved in a conference,” noted Kellogg, who spent the previous nine seasons guiding the University of Massachusetts in the Atlantic 10 Conference and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014.
“I was telling the staff and players that we could end up on the positive end of [the parity] in the league, and it’s amazing that we can have another home game on Saturday. I’m anticipating another great crowd like we had tonight.”
That crowd, which came to see the third hotly contested installment of this Battle of Brooklyn series in the past two weeks, instead was treated to a defensive clinic by the Blackbirds in the rubber match as LIU limited the young and steadily emerging Terriers to a dismal 27 percent shooting effort.
Senior standout Joel Hernandez led all scorers with 26 points and sophomore guard Jashaun Agosto added 12 points and seven rebounds for LIU (16-16), which held a whopping 47-33 advantage on the glass and never looked back after opening a 35-23 advantage at halftime.
“I’m obviously excited that [Joel and Jashaun] and the guys in the locker room performed at such a high level,” said Kellogg, whose hiring last year was met with some criticism after former head coach Jack Perri had just guided the Blackbirds to 20 wins before getting knocked off in the opening round of NEC.
“As a coaching staff, we gave them a game plan, but we’ve played these guys three times in the last week and a half, so there’s not a ton we can do to change up and do anything different,” Kellogg added.
The Blackbirds finished 8-for-20 from long range while holding the Terriers to a 4-for-21 performance that vanquished any shot SFC had of escaping the building with a victory and resuming its path toward a first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I thought the players came out and performed tonight,” Kellogg said. “They locked it up on the defensive end and finally started rebounding the ball like I think we can. That, and it was nice to see some three-point shots go in.”
The Terriers, spearheaded by junior guard Rasheem Dunn (10 points) during a nine-win improvement over last season, were gravely disappointed by their overall performance but doubtlessly have brighter days ahead, according to head coach and Brooklyn native Glenn Braica.
“I’m proud of my guys for this year, I think we had a pretty good season for a team that wasn’t picked to do much,” Braica said. “The only thing that bothers me is I would’ve liked to have ended it a lot better.
“That’s disappointing for me because I would’ve liked for them to have ended a little bit better,” he added. “I don’t know what it was, I don’t know if we ran out of gas. We didn’t feel the juice.”
There will be plenty of juice in the Steinberg Center Saturday as the Blackbirds look to move one step closer to reaching the Big Dance for the first time since 2013, when Perri was at the helm of a dynastic Blackbirds squad that completed the first-ever championship three-peat in the history of the conference.
“We’re excited and fortunate that we don’t have to travel and that we have a home game here on Saturday, with a great, great crowd like we had tonight,” Kellogg said.
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