Joel Hernandez's dunk in final seconds provided dagger for LIU Brooklyn as Blackbirds escaped clutches of upset-minded Bryant to earn third straight win. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose of Hoops)
BROOKLYN -- LIU Brooklyn's back-to-back-to-back Northeast Conference championship teams featured a pair of constants, as the imposing interior of Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere was supplemented by a trio of guards who provided the motor in the fast-paced offense that earned NCAA Tournament showdowns with the likes of North Carolina and Michigan State.
The front line remains a work in progress five years and two coaches removed from the last vestige of glory in Kings County, but the backcourt performance Thursday night harkened back to the days where the road to a conference crown went through Jason Brickman, C.J. Garner and Michael Culpo, the triumvirate who formed the foundation of the Blackbirds' nest.
Led by 22 points from fifth-year senior Joel Hernandez and near-triple-doubles from both Julian Batts and Jashaun Agosto, LIU continued its impressive rebound from a sweep at the hands of Robert Morris and Saint Francis University on the annual Pennsylvania trip, surviving an upset bid from a Bryant team aiming to score its third win of the season, laying claim to an 83-79 victory in a duel at the Steinberg Wellness Center.
"I love those guys," head coach Derek Kellogg gushed as the Blackbirds (9-11, 4-3 NEC) erased any lingering malcontent from their winless journey to the Keystone State with a gritty performance on the part of their guards, as Batts (17 points, nine assists, eight rebounds) and Agosto (18 points, seven rebounds, six assists) poured in well-rounded contributions to the cause behind the explosiveness of Hernandez, whose dunk in the final seconds iced an affair in which neither team led by more than six points. "I think they're as good of a 1-2-3 combo as there is in the conference. They play off each other, and when they do what they did tonight, I think that makes us a dangerous team. When you could do it like they did tonight, I think that's a testament to their toughness and their ability to make plays."
LIU did not have it easy at any juncture, as Bryant played an inspired brand of basketball with a shorthanded rotation. Once again without the services of Bash Townes and Taylor McHugh due to injuries, the Bulldogs (2-18, 1-6 NEC) used a combination of three-point marksmanship and steady ball handling mixed with four double-figure scorers to match the Blackbirds shot for shot in a seesaw battle that was just getting started when each team used matching 7-0 runs; LIU to end the first half, Bryant to begin the second, to turn up the heat three minutes removed from the intermission, when the visiting Bulldogs took a 43-41 lead on a layup by freshman Monty Urmilevicius. The Lithuanian forward filled in admirably for Townes, racking up ten points and eight rebounds; the former tying a career high, before fouling out with 1:44 remaining in regulation and the score tied at 77-all.
Prior to the pivotal whistle, Bryant had taken its largest initiative just a few short minutes before, leading 73-68 after Hunter Ware's basket with 4:08 left to play, one that was promptly answered by a Zach Coleman three-pointer on the ensuing possession. Adam Grant, whose 20 points led the Bulldogs, extended the lead once more before a three-point play by Raiquan Clark (21 points) drew the Blackbirds within one with 2:39 on the clock. LIU pulled even as Hernandez split a pair at the foul line, then squared the contest again after Bosko Kostur, who scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, gave the visitors a brief advantage with his layup just over two minutes out from the horn. However, the senior forward's basket would be the last Bryant field goal before Brandon Carroll's layup at the buzzer, with eight straight LIU points in between to decide a game that the visiting head coach would later lament two straight missed front ends of one-and-one foul shots as making the difference in the latest twist to a season that has been the literal definition of Murphy's Law.
"The free throw line was disappointing," Tim O'Shea admitted. "I thought we played well. We're a much improved team. We're undermanned right now without Bash and Taylor, but if we make our free throws, I think we're right where we want to be down the stretch. Missing back-to-back one-and-ones, that was a killer for us, it really was. That also gave them a little bit of momentum, just enough to get it over the finish line."
"We're right there. If we get back to full strength, we're a dangerous team. I like our team, I just don't understand how we can't seem to catch a break. We just have to get over the hump, and free throws have cost us in a number of games."
Now winners of three straight, LIU hits the road once again, taking on Central Connecticut and reigning conference champion Mount St. Mary's in search of adding greater momentum to a run that has gained traction at an opportune time, and one that has allowed for the ability to tighten some of the loose areas surrounding a team with the pieces to make a statement in March.
"We had to really sit down and realize what we were doing wrong," Hernandez said of the return from Pennsylvania. "We made a big emphasis on defense. We want to preach that as our number one focus. We know we could score the ball, but we really have to focus on defense and stopping our opponents."