Thursday, March 8, 2012

Back To Back For Blackbirds

Jim Ferry cuts down net to signify second straight NEC championship for LIU Brooklyn.  (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)

After numerous local teams could not close the deal, LIU Brooklyn is headed to their second NCAA Tournament in as many years.

Playing Robert Morris again for the second year in a row; the Blackbirds (25-8) did not need overtime last night as they had the year before, taking control midway through the first half before methodically putting the Colonials (24-10) away over the final stanza to repeat as Northeast Conference champions with an impressive 90-73 victory before a sellout crowd at their home court of the Wellness Center in downtown Brooklyn.

"We set a goal to try to accomplish something and become great," LIU coach Jim Ferry said after the game and subsequent celebration.  "We started out 0-3 and people stopped paying attention to us.  With about 30 seconds to go, I turned to one of my assistant coaches and said 'Look what we just built."

What the Blackbirds have built is a program that; barring any transfers or drastic twists of fate, returns four starters and most of their bench from this year's team as they will look to become the first school in NEC history to win three straight basketball crowns, and a big part of the success lies within sophomore point guard Jason Brickman.

In his first season as a starter after replacing David Hicks, Brickman has become increasingly better as the quarterback of one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation.  His double-double last night (18 points, 11 assists) included an NEC championship game record for most helpers in a title contest, but it wasn't surprising to his teammates.

"He just finds you in the right spots every time," said backcourt partner C.J. Garner, who had 21 points of his own in the win last night to lead the Blackbirds.  "He always finds a way to get you the ball."

In addition to Brickman, there is the token human interest story that is Julian Boyd.  After not knowing whether or not he would be able to play after being diagnosed with a heart condition that triggered improper blood circulation no less than three years ago, the junior forward has only become the conference's unanimous choice for Player of the Year since then.  Last night, Boyd added to the accolades with an 18-point, 10-rebound performance that earned him the honor of being named the NEC tournament's Most Valuable Player on top of already being an indispensable asset to LIU's frontcourt.  It was fitting that Boyd provided what could be described as the dagger; an alley-oop from C.J. Garner that was replayed later that night on SportsCenter, and his coach could not have been happier.

"It's an unbelievable story," said Ferry in reference to Boyd's long journey back to the court.  "For a kid who had a year taken away from him to becoming the player of the year and the MVP, it couldn't happen to a nicer kid.  It's just a magical story."

Just as magical is the evolution of the Northeast Conference as well.  Each of the last three NEC champions has been a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but has played hard on each occasion.  In 2009, Robert Morris nearly upset Michigan State in the round of 64 before being outplayed by the Spartans over the final minutes, and took Villanova to overtime the following season.  Last year; this same LIU team played even with North Carolina through the first 30 minutes before the Tar Heels pulled away to a 102-87 win, but the quality of the league has improved so much that even people outside the NEC are able to see it.

"I think it's getting better and better," said Jim Ferry when asked about the NEC's quality and recent history as a tough customer in the NCAA Tournament.  "It (the league) is the best it has been in ten years."

Regardless of who they play, the Blackbirds will more than likely be something their opponent has never faced before: A team that can run up and down the court with the best of them, yet clamp down enough on defense to take a Top 25 team out of their element.  "For all of us to have that experience from last year, we'll feel more in place," said Julian Boyd when comparing facing North Carolina to whomever Greg Gumbel announces as LIU's draw this Sunday.

The Northeast Conference may not have a round of 64 victory to its credit; and only four 15 seeds have ever beaten a No. 2, the last coming in 2001 when Hampton shocked Iowa State, but if you're looking for an upset to shake up your bracket, it wouldn't hurt to take a look at LIU Brooklyn.

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