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Hernandez leads LIU-Brooklyn basketball back to Big Dance

Scores 32 as Blackbirds stun top-seeded Wagner for NEC Crown

March 7, 2018 By John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
LIU-Brooklyn senior Joel Hernandez hoists the NEC Tournament championship trophy following the Blackbirds’ upset win over Wagner Tuesday night in Staten Island. Photo courtesy of
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Joel Hernandez wasn’t ready to end his playing days at LIU Brooklyn. He wanted to go dancing instead.

The fifth-year senior scored a career-high 32 points Tuesday night, propelling the Blackbirds to a stunning 71-61 upset of top-seeded Wagner in the Northeast Conference (NEC) title game before a capacity crowd of 2,330 at Staten Island’s Spiro Sports Center.

“I wanted to make sure I played my hardest and I left everything out on the floor,” Hernandez said after leading LIU Brooklyn back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years by going 10-of-16 from the floor, grabbing seven rebounds, blocking a pair of shots and picking up three steals in 38 spectacular minutes.

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“Even if we lost, I didn’t want to have any regrets after the game,” added the NEC Tournament MVP. “So, I just wanted to make sure I played hard for my brothers on the court and I feel like I did that.”

Hernandez, who missed almost all of last season due to a season-ending injury suffered in LIU Brooklyn’s opener, showed up on the Downtown scene as a freshman back in 2013, when the Blackbirds were coming off their record third consecutive NEC championship.

The Teaneck, N.J., native knew that Tuesday’s nationally televised showdown with the heavily favored Seahawks would be his final opportunity to return the Blackbirds to the glory they enjoyed just before his arrival.

He took full advantage of the chance, outscoring Wagner singlehandedly, 19-18, in the opening half, and helping LIU close the Seahawks out down the stretch.

“I thought he put us on his back in the first half,” first-year LIU head coach Derek Kellogg said of Hernandez after the Blackbirds and their loyal fans stormed the court to celebrate the Downtown school’s fourth trip to the Big Dance since 2011.

“I thought he gave us a nice cushion that we needed. And then every time Wagner made a run, he came up with a big basket or a big play. I told him all along, that’s what a fifth-year senior is supposed to do, if he wants to elongate his career and give himself an opportunity to play at the highest level in the NCAA Tournament.”

Junior slasher Raiquan Clark poured in 20 points and pulled down eight rebounds for LIU (18-16), which handed the Seahawks (23-9) their first home loss of the season after 16 straight home victories.

Kellogg’s crew, which barely survived Saturday’s 78-77 semifinal victory over Fairleigh Dickinson at the Steinberg Center, ran out to a 34-18 halftime lead behind Hernandez’s prolific first half.

The Seahawks tried to make up the difference after intermission, but never quite got in a rhythm on a night many assumed would end with their first NEC championship since 2003.

”We couldn’t throw a ball in the ocean,” Wagner coach Bashir Mason ceded after the Seahawks shot a dismal 30 percent (21-for-70) from the field, including 6-of-33 from 3-point range.

”It’s a tough pill to swallow, but I told our guys this is something that’s going to help us get better. We’ll learn from this, grow from this and get better from this moment.”  

Kellogg, whose hiring was met with some criticism after the firing of Jack Perri following the Blackbirds’ 20-win campaign a season ago, will now ready his team for a first-round tournament game at a site yet to be determined.

LIU, which will be a No. 16 seed in the Field of 68, finds out its first-round opponent during the NCAA’s annual Selection Sunday program this weekend.

“I thought that was great for our conference,” Kellogg said of the interborough final. “The two teams battled and both teams went at it tonight in a sold-out arena. I thought the atmosphere was about as good as any game I’ve been involved in in a long, long time, so from a conference perspective I thought that was fantastic.”

After a three-game losing streak in late January threatened to leave the Blackbirds on the outside looking in at the NEC Tournament, Kellogg’s unit won five straight to grab the league’s championship trophy and perhaps kick off another dynastic run through the conference.

“I’m really proud of our guys and the way they came out and competed,” Kellogg said after guiding a team to the NCAAs for the first time since 2014 with the University of Massachusetts, his employer for the previous nine years.

“Every time Wagner made a push, we responded on either the defensive or offensive end of the floor … We’re just excited to move on and have a chance to represent the conference and LIU Brooklyn in the NCAA Tournament.”


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