Joel Hernandez didn’t want to see his season end.
The fifth-year senior had battled through injuries and disappointment to become one of the best players in the NEC. In the conference tournament he was the best player on the court in every game he played and it’s why LIU Brooklyn is heading to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
Hernandez scored 32 points in the final and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NEC Tournament. In all he scored 83 points over the three games, the third most all-time.
“Especially coming into the game I wanted to make sure that I played my hardest, left everything out on the floor,” Hernandez said about the final. “Even if we lost I didn’t want to have any regrets coming after the game.”
Hernandez saved his best play of the season for his final three games. His offensive ratings in the final three games were 142, 130 and 132. They were three of his five best performances during his senior season.
Hernandez showed his versatility against the Seahawks, a team built on its defensive identity. Wagner couldn’t find a way to contain the 6-foot-3 shooting guard. He wound his way to the basket for layups, hit pull-up jumpers, and went to the free throw line 14 times (making 11) as the Blackbirds locked up an NEC championship.
“I thought Joel did a good job of playing the point, the power forward, the guard, just about everywhere on the floor, he was kind of a do-it-all guy today,” said LIU head coach Derek Kellogg after the game.
Hernandez also grabbed seven rounds, a key part of LIU’s defensive effort. The Blackbirds held their NYC rivals to just 0.90 points per possession, as Wagner shot just 6-33 (18%) from three. The defense was the missing piece that helped carry LIU across the finish line, but it was something that had been a focus for the Blackbirds since day one of the off-season.
“In the summer time we knew that we could do this if we focused on defense,” Hernandez said. “We knew that we could lock in and get this done. I’m proud of our guys, we fought in each and every game and I’m really proud of us for competing.”
The defense was especially stifling during the first half, and as both teams struggled to find their footing it was Hernandez that carried the Blackbirds through the first 20 minutes. When Raiquan Clark knocked down a 3 right before the buzzer LIU had a 16-point margin it would never fully relinquish.
“I thought he put us on his back in the first half and really gave us a nice cushion that we needed,” Kellogg said. “And then every time Wagner made a run he came up with a basket or made a play. That’s what I told him along a fifth year senior is supposed to do if he wants to elongate his career and give his a chance to play at the highest level and in the NCAA Tournament.”