Two More Hurdles Left For St. Francis Brooklyn After Beating LIU

Two more hurdles.

Had he been wired with a lie detector, St. Francis Brooklyn coach Glenn Braica may or may not have set off all kinds of alarms after Wednesday night’s 79-70 NEC quarterfinal victory over rival LIU Brooklyn when he said, “I don’t even know what Tuesday is. I’m just thinking about Saturday.”

Tuesday is the holy grail, of course, the possible NEC final, which would take place in the Pope P.E. Center – (alleged) capacity 1,200 – on national television. Braica and St. Francis Brooklyn have already found a bigger spotlight then they could have probably thought of, with national media picking up the story of the comically small Division I school from Brooklyn winning the NEC regular season title trying to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in its lengthy history. Wednesday’s victory was its first NEC Tournament win since 2003 (breaking a nine-game losing streak) and SFC is already assured its first postseason tournament appearance since playing in the 1963 NIT by virtue of its NEC regular-season title (the program’s first since 2001).

The community has rallied behind the Terriers (22-10), as Wednesday’s game was sold out earlier in the week and the building was full and buzzing 30 minutes before tip. The school hopes to have another sellout for Saturday’s semifinal at 2 p.m. against St. Francis U, winners over defending NEC champion Mount St. Mary’s Wednesday.

“We’ve had some great crowds in the past, but nothing like this,” Braica said. “I’m having trouble trying to get people in, I’m trying to sneak people in my office and then let them loose in the crowd. It’s tough and my crazy friends are calling me at 4 o’clock thinking I can get them in. It’s great. It’s fun for the school, but I don’t want these guys to get sidetracked. I told them to shut their phones off after shootaround, they’re not ticket brokers.”

Of course, an improved eighth-seeded LIU Brooklyn (12-18) stood tall and did its best to play the role of heel Wednesday, jumping out to a quick 10-2 lead just 3:09 into the game on a Landon Atterberry dunk. But if the Terriers had any sense of impending dread, they didn’t show it, turning up their defense and only conceding 12 points the rest of the half to lead 35-22 at the intermission.

“We’re not overlooking anyone. It’s Division I basketball,” Braica said. “I looked at all the teams we could play and I wasn’t thrilled to play them, but whoever you looked at in the eight teams, I wouldn’t want to play any of them. So you take whoever comes your way and just deal with it. And we did. They (LIU) have really good young players and they’re going to be really good,” Braica said. “They only had two freshmen on the all-rookie team and they could have had four. There’s a lot of good freshmen in the NEC this year, and LIU had a bunch of them.”

The Blackbirds continued to take punches to start the second half, but kept getting up, using a 15-4 run to close to within 44-42 on a Martin Hermannsson short jumper with 10:51 left. But Braica had a trick up his sleeve, a full-court zone press that baffled LIU, at least temporarily, and got them some much needed breathing space after two steals by Kevin Douglas and another from Brent Jones in a 35-second span.

“The press really helped us,” Braica said. “It turned the game. We got a couple steals and Brent made some plays in transition off of it. It got us some quick baskets when we were having trouble scoring.”

The Blackbirds still didn’t want to go gentle into that good Brooklyn night, but from there it was the two guys that have led St. Francis Brooklyn most of the season, Jalen Cannon and Jones, both seniors, both first-team all-NEC picks (Cannon was the runaway NEC Player of the Year), and both filled the stat sheet Wednesday. Jones finished with a career-high 31 points and five assists, while Cannon added 15 points and 15 rebounds, the 19th double-double of the season for the all-time NEC career rebounder. LIU Brooklyn – who was led by Atterberry’s 18 points – never got within seven points in the final five minutes.

“The thing about our team this year, and we’ve had it in the past, but moreso this year than any year I’ve been here, is that everyone has a defined role,” Braica said. “(Brent and Jalen) are the leaders, everyone knows it, the other two seniors are doing a great job, too. We were having a little trouble with that early in the year because we have a lot of guys back, but we have seven new guys. The new guys, to their credit, have bought into it and have fallen into place and understand that these guys are the leaders.”

Jones and Cannon, as with many recruits in the NEC, took interesting paths to Remsen Street. Jones who said he came from “two stops away on the train”, was one of Braica’s first recruits five years ago. Braica claimed he mistook him for a younger brother on his first visit to campus because of his slight build, and he redshirted the 2010-11 season before slowly turning into the best point guard in the NEC this season.

“You can’t dwell on another game,” Jones said. It’s one game at a time. I’m just focusing on leading my team and everything else will take care of itself. No regrets.”

Cannon got no Division I offers until St. Francis Brooklyn came calling, and admittedly wasn’t terribly familiar with the school even though he was only a little over an hour down I-78 in Allentown, Pa.

“I had heard of St. Francis Pennsylvania, but not St. Francis New York,” Cannon said. “I was like, ‘Who?’ The coaches kept coming to my games and practices even after he committed, which I thought was cool. I’ve just enjoyed every last bit of it.”

Cannon and Braica mentioned Cannon (who is also the leading active NCAA Division I leader in rebounding) played in the same Lehigh Valley high school league as another under-recruited college star, possible Big East Player of the Year Darrun Hilliard, and the two work out occasionally together in the off-season.

With Villanova a possible No. 1 seed, could the Wildcats and Terriers meet in a first-round NCAA Tournament game in a couple of weeks?

Alas, those two hurdles remain, the St. Francis Cannon had heard of Saturday and then possibly the Bryant-Robert Morris winner Tuesday night. On a scale of 1-10 of New York City basketball awesomeness, a final at the sold-out Pope Center would be about a 27. But Braica, at least as much as he humanly can, has his sights set on the hurdle closest to him.

“We’re going to do our best, and that’s it,” Braica said. “I’m not putting any more pressure on these kids. They’ve done more than anyone ever expected them to do. We’re justgoing to keep taking it a step further, keep grinding. We’re a tough group and if our best is good enough, that will be great. If not, we’ll have to live with it.”

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