This article was originally published by Jesse Kamer on www.thecatchandshoot.com.
Behind a career performance from C.J. Garner, LIU-Brooklyn knocked off Mount St. Mary’s in the NEC title game at the WRAC, 91-70, to complete the first three-peat in NEC tournament history.
Garner, a senior guard is one of the many players to lead the Blackbirds’ to the national spotlight over the last few seasons, was unstoppable with 31 points on 13-of-17 shooting. He also had a two assists and a pair of steals.
Hot shooting in the first half for Mount St. Mary’s kept them within four points at halftime, but the Blackbirds blew the game open with 67.7 percent shooting in the second half, outscoring the Mountaineers 56-39 in the final 20 minutes.
The Mountaineers led 20-12 seven minutes in thanks to three three-pointers from Sam Prescott and one trey from Julian Norfleet, who was questionable for Tuesday’s game after injuring his ankle in the conference semifinals. Garner rattled off eight points in a 2:39 span and LIU tied the score at 25-25.
Named the NEC tournament MVP after the game, Garner really stepped up his play in the three single-elimination games. In the semifinals, he posted 30 points against Quinnipiac, and in the quarterfinals he recorded 23 against Wagner.
“There was a sense of urgency,” the senior said.
“He’s had it in him all along,” LIU-Brooklyn head coach Jack Perri said. “When you have Julian [Boyd], Jason [Brickman] and Jamal [Olasewere], he hasn’t had to do it. He’s done it when he needed to do it, but it was more like everybody can do it at different times... I said it from day one this year: ‘C.J., you’re as good as anybody in this league.’”
The score was still tied, at 31-31, inside of two minutes, and LIU scored back-to-back buckets to take a 35-31 lead to intermission. The Blackbirds held Mount St. Mary’s to one made field goal over the final nine minutes.
“We changed up to a 2-3 zone and extended it to take away those three-point shots,” Perri said.
The Blackbirds stayed in their zone in the second half, and it continued to work. They held the Mountaineers to 3-of-18 shooting from beyond the arc after allowing them to make 6-of-13 in the first period.
LIU’s offense quickly got in a rhythm, ending most possessions with at least a foul if not a made field goal.
An athletic slam by Olasewere over Shivaughn Wiggins with 12:02 left brought the home crowd to its feet and stretched the lead to 56-42. The Blackbirds would build their lead to as many as 24 points with 4:16 on the clock.
When D.J. Griggs dribbled out the clock and the final buzzer sounded, a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance became official for LIU.
“This means so much to our program,” Perri said, who became the third first-year head coach to win a NEC tournament title. Perri had been at LIU as an assistant for seven seasons under Jim Ferry, including the recent championship years. “Being the leader of the group and having dealt with all that we’ve dealt with, this is definitely the sweetest.”
The Blackbirds were only the No. 3 seed in the tournament, so their quarterfinal matchup against Quinnipiac was expected to be their final home game of the season. But Mount St. Mary’s, the No. 5 seed, upset No. 1 seed Robert Morris in the semifinals, so, as the higher seed, LIU hosted.
“After we beat Wagner [in the semifinals], we all went to the locker room and watched the Mount and Robert Morris game,” said Olasewere, who finished the championship game with 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals. “We were cheering when Mount won just because of the fact that we could come back here [to the WRAC].”
It was only fair that these players got to make NEC history on their home floor. LIU’s recent history had been filled with mediocrity, but thanks to players like Olasewere, Garner, Boyd and Brickman, the program has done a complete 180.
Brickman, a junior, has experienced a championship in all three of his season. “It’s great just to come into this program and win three championships and make history,” the starting point guard and nation’s leader in assists said. He finished Tuesday night with seven points and eight assists to only three turnovers.
Perri was quick to peg these four veterans, along with seniors Kenny Onyechi and Booker Hucks, to the “best ever” in the NEC. “Why wouldn’t they be the best ever?” said Perri. “They’ve done what nobody else has ever done.”
Now, the Blackbirds will wait until they hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Most likely, they will be a No. 16 seed.
“We’ve had some pretty rough losses in the beginning of the year, so I would imagine the play-in game is a clear option,” Perri said. “That’s fine. We’ll take whoever we get. We’ll have confidence one way or the other.”
And that confidence is not wrong.
With a scorer like C.J. Garner, a versatile forward like Jamal Olasewere, and the nation’s leading assist man in Jason Brickman, they could give a top-seeded team a good fight.
Jesse Kramer is the founder of The Catch and Shoot, a blog dedicated to college basketball news, observations and insights on nationwide topics. You can follow Jesse on Twitter at Jesse_Kramer, and you can follow The Catch and Shoot at Catch_N_Shoot.
All quotes in this article were received in person.