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Tiny Dancers: LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Jamal Olasewere and the Blackbirds are the first team in NEC history to win three straight league titles. (USATSI)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- The Blackbirds are flying to the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, and that's a record. A record for both the program and the Northeast Conference. Never before had LIU Brooklyn won three straight conference tournament titles, and never before had the NEC seen its league won in back-to-back-to-back years by the same school.

But that's what the third-seeded Blackbirds have done after defeating No. 6 Mount St. Mary's 91-70 at the Wellness Center in the heart of Brooklyn. LIU Brooklyn senior shooting guard C.J. Garner led his squad with a career-high 31 points -- in just 17 shots. He was named the conference tournament's MVP, with teammates, senior Jamal Olasewere and junior Jason Brickman, joining him on the all-tourney team.

"I'm very emotional right now," first-year Blackbirds coach Jack Perri said. "This is a totally different book, totally different story. Everything went right the past two years."

You see small-conference teams rattle off three straight tournament auto bids from time to time and think it's a cycle of a mini dynasty that was supposed to be. That's not what happened with this program. The Blackbirds dealt with injury concerns over the summer, then had a fiasco when players were suspended from the school back in the fall.

And then they lost their best player in mid-December.

Julian Boyd -- who's missed time in the past due to a heart ailment -- has been reduced to a cheerleader's role since he tore his ACL against Rice. He was perched at the end of the bench in the NEC title game Tuesday night, and his spirit was obvious and infectious to his teammates.

"Four is the goal," Boyd said, referring to winning a fourth straight NEC title next season. He was watching his teammates cut down the net as he spoke. He opted not to climb up the ladder for a snip. It was his choice. He wants do it one more time -- next year, when he's played enough to earn it. (In either the spring or summer, he'll find out if the NCAA grants him one last year of eligibility come.)

On the floor following the win, family was everywhere. Actual family and close friends to the players and coaches with this LIU Brooklyn program that's become the standard-bearer for clutch and star play inside the conference. First-year Blackbirds coach Jack Perri estimated more than 200 friends and family were on hand.

Among them, proud and showing off her son's rings, was Bose Olasewere. Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, and now living in Silver Spring, Md., Bose has gone to almost all of her son's games, dating back to his childhood. Jamal approximated she's been at 90 percent of his games, and has driven to many of those in her Toyota Sequioa, which he said long ago eclipsed thousands and thousands of miles. She's also rented cars to get to road games.

"She makes it like she's driving down the street," Olaswere said. And it wasn't just family. Jamal's middle school and high school friends from Silver Spring showed up, guys who are now attending college up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Jamal's father, Abbi, traded smiles and laughs in the stands with Perri's father. Jamal was on the court, his arms full with two of LIU Brooklyn's three NEC trophies.

"I got too much hardware," Olasewere said, as he was directed which way to go for his next interview. He had about 15 of them.

After the win, when his shirt was soaked with celebratory suds, Perri admitted he "wasn't sure which way it would go when we lost six in a row." LIU Brooklyn isn't a strong team this year; last year's group, truth be told, was certainly better. But with Garner scoring his career-high twice in the past four games, the rush of emotion and sense of click became apparent.

"I'm gonna break down at some point because this was just an unbelievable year," Perri said. "Stuff that wasn't necessarily bad. I can't even get into the other stuff; I don't even want to go down that road."

But Perri did say there was fear he'd lose some of his players for good, that they'd be kicked out. It wasn't just about the team, but about their academic careers. Fortunately, for all involved, they were allowed to return to school.

They made a couple of coaches proud Tuesday night. Their current one, and their former one. Jim Ferry, who coached the Blackbirds to their past two NCAA tournaments, is now rebuilding the program at Duquesne. But in advance of the NEC title game, he called the man whom he recruited nearly two decades ago, when Perri was 16 years old. Ferry wanted to see his team play.

Perri of course wanted him there. And so Ferry flew from Pittsburgh to New York. He sneaked into the top concourse and watched from the corner.

Olasewere spotted him in the first half, after his second foul. It was 28-25, Mount St. Mary's at that point. Olasewere pointed out Ferry to his teammates.

From that moment on, LIU outscored Mount St. Mary's 66-42.

Ferry was just another one of the floor after the game, one of the family members. This program has built itself on having a tight bond that extends beyond the locker room. Support paved the way for LIU to do what it had never done before.


Players to know: Jamal Olasewere and Jason Brickman. Even though Garner's had a heck of a tournament, these two are still the most vital pieces to Jack Perri's team. Olasewere is the team's best player except for the other best player -- Julian Boyd -- who's been out since mid-December with an ACL tear. Olasewere, a powerful senior wing, averages a team-best 19 points sand 8.5 rebounds per game. As for Brickman, check the stat below.

The Vitals:

  • Record: 20-13 overall, 12-6 in the NEC
  • Most recent tournament appearance: 2012
  • Jerry Palm predicts: 16 seed
  • KenPom ranking: 192
  • Sagarin ranking: 170
  • RPI: 185
  • Best wins: Manhattan, at Bryant
  • Worst losses: Morehead State, at St. Peter's, at Lamar
  • Notable stat: I've got a combo stat for you. First off, Jason Brickman leads the nation in assists, dishing out 8.5 dimes per game. He had Tuesday night. But also: Brickman's passing often helps out Olasewere, who draws eight fouls every 40 minutes, per Kenpom.com. That's the third-highest rate in the country, and while Olasewere is aggressive to get a lot of that contact on his own, Brickman's obfuscating playmaking ability also contributes.

For more college basketball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnCBB on Twitter, like us on Facebook and subscribe to the thrice-a-week podcast on iTunes. You can follow Matt Norlander on Twitter here: @MattNorlander.

 
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