FAIRFIELD, Conn. – As LIU Brooklyn eviscerated Sacred Heart in the first half Wednesday night, a natural question to ask was where the heck this team had been all season.
The simple answer is they were there the whole way. Sometimes.
Like when they nearly won at Fordham and when they swept Wagner. But not when the Blackbirds were beaten twice by Robert Morris and finished the regular season by losing to Bryant, who didn’t even make the NEC Tournament.
The easy statistical explanation is defense, despite having perhaps the most offensive weapons in the league, LIU Brooklyn finished dead last in the NEC in defensive eFG% (51.9%), kind of weird because it was actually worse than their non-conference mark, which usually doesn’t happen in a league like the NEC.
“I thought our guys came out focused on the defensive end, especially in the first half,” LIU Brooklyn coach Jack Perri said. “Because we got them to miss, we were able to run, and that got us the lead.”
Wednesday night, almost all the offensive cards Perri played were winners. Iverson Fleming and Glenn Feidanga both posted season-highs with 18 and 10 points, respectively, and Joel Hernandez added 22 points on 10-19 shooting. The sixth-seeded Blackbirds (16-14) knocked down shots early and often, and when No. 3 Sacred Heart (12-18) came out to guard them, they just went to the hoop, finishing a whopping 29-46 on two-point shots.
“I’m proud of the way we fought back in the second half and we just fell short,” Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina said. “We got outplayed today. To win a playoff game, you have to play well, and you have to get a little lucky. Their 6th, 7th, and 8th men just stepped up big today and I think that was the difference. I love my guys, they fought hard, but it just wasn’t good enough today.”
— Northeast Conference (@necbbt) March 3, 2016
When Martin Hermannsson maneuvered his way to the basket with 2:29 left in the first half, LIU Brooklyn led 47-27 and were getting everything it wanted. It still led 63-46 with 12:30 left, when newly crowned NEC Player of the Year Cane Broome happened. Broome scored 20 points in less than eight minutes, capping his personal run with two three-pointers, the first one ridiculously long and the second ludicrously so to bring the Pioneers within 73-72 with 3:42 left.
“We just kept fighting,” Broome said. “We said if we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose fighting.”
But seemingly on the verge of elimination, LIU Brooklyn found a way to score on three straight possessions. Tevin Falzon had a chance to tie the game on a three-pointer with 1:30 left, but it rattled out, and the Blackbirds were advancing to play top-seeded Wagner Saturday in the semifinals.
“That’s what we said, ‘Keep your poise’. We knew they were going to make a run,” Perri said. “They’re at home, they have the Player of the Year on their team. So much of their game is transition and I think we made some mistakes and had some turnovers, that led to easy points for them. To our guys’ credit, we stayed strong, stayed tough, and stayed confident.”
In the end, we’re still left a little confused. Aakim Saintil and Jerome Frink, two extremely talented players (Frink was a first-team all-NEC pick) had just 7 and 10 points, respectively and Martin Hermannsson didn’t have a great game by his lofty standards with 15 points and 5 turnovers. And – thanks largely to Broome – Sacred Heart had 1.09 ppp, despite going 3-20 from three-point range.
However, LIU Brooklyn is advancing, and that’s all the matters at this time of season.
What else did we learn at the Pitt Center?:
1) We salute you, Cane Broome
Broome will tell you he’s got some work to do, especially in the turnover department, where he had six more Wednesday (although his rate for the season was a not-so-terrible 18.9% because he has the ball so much). Strangely, he had four turnovers in the first half, three of them coming on slips, which made him switch to a totally different pair of sneakers for the second half.
A scary thing for NEC opponents is that there’s still room to improve in his shooting, Broome finished just 31.1% from three-point range this season, although he channeled his inner Steph Curry with his last two shots from distance, both of them clutch when his team needed him most.
— Northeast Conference (@necbbt) March 3, 2016
“The kid was hitting some ridiculous shots,” Perri said. “He’s a heck of a player. I don’t know how long that last one was, but that was just ridiculous.”
You hate to say it, but you hope Broome – who had 20 points or more in his last seven games and at least 17 in 13 straight games to finish the season – didn’t play too well, as in someone from a bigger conference doesn’t start whispering in his ear about how he could be on a bigger stage. Because with him, it’s likely that Sacred Heart will be near the top of the NEC preseason rankings next fall.
“We have the best player in the league coming back for two more years and we have a lot of other pieces, too, so I’m excited,” Latina said. “But now it’s our job to make ourselves a legitimate championship contender. I think we’re there. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I think we’re close, even though it doesn’t feel like that right now.”
2) Scouting reports
“They were a lot more aggressive than I thought they were going to be, and eventually we adjusted, but that was a big factor in the first half, they made us start our offense a lot higher,” Latina said.
An inspection of the numbers, however, shows that for whatever reason LIU Brooklyn has been much more aggressive this season, ranking 71st nationally in turnover rate (19.9%, and ahead of Sacred Heart in conference play) after being 228th, 321st, and 262nd in Perri’s first three seasons in charge.
Those did include a championship, so there are of course different ways of doing things, and their aggressiveness likely played some part in the woeful eFG% defense mentioned above, although – as I said – oddly the eFG% defense took a dramatic turn upward in conference play and is otherwise right on par with Perri’s first three years.
One category that hasn’t stayed on par is LIU Brooklyn’s three-point shooting, which was at 38.0% in Perri’s 2012-13 championship season (23rd nationally), but is just 30.1% this season (334th), 29.9% in conference play. But they hit five of their first nine Wednesday to grab that huge lead (only to miss their final seven), and if they can get Fleming (just 12-47 on the season entering Wednesday) to keep knocking down shots, there’s no reason they can’t win two more games and cut down the nets again.
“One of our gameplans defensively was certainly to play inside out and give them the threes,” Latina said. “Then Iverson Fleming goes 3-3 from three and 5-5 overall. Those are shots gameplan wise that you have to live with. Give those kids credit, they made those shots. In games like this, it often takes another guy to step up and they got that tonight.”
3) LIU-Wagner III
While not many of the players are the same, LIU Brooklyn and Wagner played a couple of classics not so long ago, and although Wagner had at least one huge regular season win (ah, the days of Kenny Ortiz), it was the Blackbirds who won three straight NEC titles while the Seahawks have not seen their name called on Selection Sunday in 13 years (its only appearance was 2003).
The advantage still has to go to the NEC regular season champs, who are also in fantastic form and now have 21 wins (Would 23 enough to help them avoid Dayton? Would the NEC even want that?). However, the Blackbirds swept Wagner, although in true NEC form, it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what the primary cause was.
In the first meeting at the Spiro Center, LIU Brooklyn was outrebounded badly, but got to the free throw line 30 times (making 23). In the second matchup, the Blackbirds got 16 offensive boards (42.2%) and attempted 32 more free throws, although turning it over 16 times.
Fleming didn’t even play in the first meeting and had only four points in the second, so he may hold the key. Interestingly, even though LIU Brooklyn is the No. 6 seed, it had two members of the first-team All-Conference team (Jerome Frink, Martin Hermannsson), while top-seeded Wagner had to settle for two second-teamers (Michael Carey and Corey Henson).
Bonus) Classy Anthony Latina
While it didn’t end in heartbreaking fashion, it was still a disappointing night for Anthony Latina and Sacred Heart, and yet on his way off the floor he took the time to step over ant thank the Sacred Heart band for their efforts and dedication this season, and not just with a cursory wave, but a legitimate speech that lasted about 90 seconds. Moments like that help restore some kind of faith in college athletics and their purpose.
Classy Anthony Latina tonight took time to thank Sacred Heart band for their support after being eliminated: pic.twitter.com/q0hYOsPTXQ
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) March 3, 2016