Monday, January 23, 2012

This Isn't Your Father's NEC (Recap of LIU vs Wagner)

The Northeast Conference, otherwise known as the NEC, started as the ECAC - Metro conference in 1981.  As the NEC website notes, originally the conference's goal was "to create a competitive NCAA Division I men’s basketball conference for unaffiliated schools on the Eastern seaboard."  It started as just a men's basketball conference, but it grew to twelve schools and twenty three sports.   There are still six original members;  Wagner, LIU Brooklyn, Fairleigh Dickinson, Robert Morris, St. Francis (NY) and St. Francis (PA).  Joining them later were Monmouth, Mount St Mary's, Central Connecticut State (CCSU), Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart and this season, Bryant.

Still, the main focus of the NEC is founded on its original goal, men's basketball.  There is great history in some of the conference's teams. Legendary coach Clair Bee, inventor of the 1-3-1 zone and the three second rule, coached his LIU team to two NIT championships in 1939 and 1941.  Jim Phelan, the legendary former coach of Mount St Mary's, won 830 games as coach of the Mountaineers and currently is seventh on the all time wins list.  Both Bee and Phelan are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.  And in a recent article, I talked about my second hand knowledge of one the NEC's greatest all time players, Desi Wilson of Fairleigh Dickinson.

However, for years the NEC has been considered one of the doormat conferences of the NCAA Tournament. In its thirty year existence, the Northeast conference has won only two games in the NCAA Tournament, both play in games. In 1983, Robert Morris defeated Georgia Southern 68-54 before losing to Purdue by two points, 55-53, in the first round.  In 2008, Mount St Mary's defeated Coppin State 69-60 before losing to North Carolina in the round of 64, 113-74.  I was at the Mountaineers game vs. the Tar Heels in the Raleigh Regional.  Mount St Mary's played hard the entire forty minutes, unlike a certain team from Bloomington vs. Arkansas in the evening session.

But in the last few years, the NEC has proven itself worthy on the court, especially in the NCAA Tournament.  In the 2010 NCAA Tournament in front of a national audience, #15 Robert Morris had #2 Villanova on the ropes, up by eight points with a little more than four minutes left before the Wildcats rallied and won in overtime 73-70. In the 2011 NCAA Tournament, #15 LIU was actually tied with #2 North Carolina with five minutes left in the first half before losing by a respectable fifteen points, 102-87.

This season, NEC teams have several big wins.  Wagner won at then nationally ranked Pittsburgh, then also won the Cable Car Classic Tournament, defeating Air Force and Santa Clara.   Robert Morris defeated LaSalle at a neutral site (currently the Explorers are 14-6 and 3-2 in the A-10) and won at Ohio (currently the Bobcats are 15-4 and 3-2 in the MAC).  LIU has a neutral site win at Vermont.  The combined record of those three NEC teams going into Saturday night's Wagner-LIU game was 43-15.

That brings us to Saturday night, where Wagner hosted LIU at Spiro Athletic Center for first place in the NEC.  The game was a hot ticket because it was being shown nationally on ESPNU.  It is the first time that I can ever remember a a regular season Northeast Conference game being televised on ESPN.  The NEC truly decided to hype the ESPNU broadcast with this video.

Part of the reason I believe ESPNU was televising the game was that Wagner not only had their big wins, but they also have Team Hurley - head coach Danny Hurley, formerly a point guard at Seton Hall and assistant coach Bobby Hurley, former star point guard at Duke.  Of course, their dad is Bob Hurley Sr., the legendary coach of St. Anthony's in Jersey City.   At 15-3 overall, Team Hurley has done a terrific job of turning around a team that two seasons ago was 5-26.

But going into Saturday night's game, defending champion LIU Brooklyn had been the best team in the NEC so far this season.  Jim Ferry's Blackbirds had won eight games in a row, including a 78-73 win at home over the Seahawks.   LIU was looking to sweep the season series and have a two game lead in conference.

Due to the icy conditions by yesterday's snow/ice storm, my good friend Tieff picked me up at my house two and half hours before game time.  That's due to the fact that you never know what the Belt Parkway will be like in bad weather, even on a Saturday.  As we drove towards the Verrazano bridge, I was listening to the Hofstra-James Madison game on WRHU's IPhone App, which works quite well by the way.   The lack of traffic and the basketball game over the IPhone made for an unusually quick trip to Staten Island.

When we got to the Spiro Sports Center, it was ninety minutes before game time.  So we each grabbed a pretzel with cheese and sat on a green bench listening to the end of the Hofstra game.  Thanks to Steve Mejia's three point play, the Pride finally had their first win in conference.  As a result, two happy Hofstra fans entered the gym.

The Spiro Sports Center Arena is your classic small conference gym.  It seats about 2,400 and is strictly bleacher seating.  Just about all the seating is general admission, so it was first come first serve.  There is an administrative office above with a great view of the court.  That's where the main ESPNU cameras were filming and there seemed to be an alumni reception there as well watching the game.

In our case, amazingly we were sitting three rows up, near center court, right between the LIU bench and the scorers table.  I called my wife and told her that she should see us on the telecast.  Sure enough, when I got home later, she told me that her and my older son Matthew saw us several times.

Spiro is a very cozy environment.  Also when it's packed, it's a LOUD environment.  The Wagner student section behind the LIU basket was already filled with students wearing white.  It was "whiteout night" as everyone in attendance got free white Wagner T-shirts.  Several Wagner dance team members went through the crowd before the game encouraging those who hadn't put their T-shirts on to do so in support of the team..

LIU had their fans, apparently made up of many members of their dance team behind the Wagner basket. In a funny moment, they grabbed one of the T-shirts, tore it up, then threw it up in the air.  It ended up with the Wagner fans next to them, who threw it back at them.

The only bad thing about Spiro was the PA system. The volume was turned up way too high, as the music, even the PA announcer sounded distorted.  Also, unfortunately it kept Tieff and I from hearing some of the student chants before the game.   Wagner is not the only one that does this as far as unbearably loud PA systems; Hofstra and Iona are guilty of this too.  But in a smaller Spiro Sports Center gym, it's much more noticeable.

Memo to the Wagner Athletic Department - Please turn down the volume on your system.  Also, please get a pep band.  With a packed student section that's already quite loud, the pep band works much better than canned music. Trust me, it works well for the Hynes Center with the Iona Pep band.  Thanks.

Once the game got started and the PA music was turned off, it was the perfect college basketball atmosphere; a sold out gym, a large, loud student section complete with a giant Danny Hurley head and two very good teams squaring off in a meaningful conference game.  This was as close to hoops heaven as a fan could get.

LIU seemed unfazed by the television cameras and the mostly partisan Seahawks crowd.  The Blackbirds jumped out to a 13-4 lead after just two and a half minutes, in large part due to their big three; Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere and Jason Brickman.  Boyd hit two baskets and assisted on another, a three pointer by Brickman. Olasewere also had two baskets in that span.  That would be a common theme for the Blackbirds on the evening.

But Wagner came back and outscored LIU 19-9 over the next several minutes due in large part to Latif Rivers who scored nine of those points during the span.  A Josh Thompson layup gave the Seahawks their first lead, 23-22.  The crowd roared in approval.  The game would see five ties in the first half alone.

When there is such an intensive atmosphere and first place in conference riding on the game, it's normal to have players' tempers flare up. During that Wagner run, a  foul was called on C.J Garner which led to an altercation between Boyd and Jonathon Williams.  The referees went over to the scorers table to review the play, which eventually led to double technical fouls for Boyd and Williams.

While the referees reviewed the play, I took this picture of them at the scorers table.  A woman behind me stated "Look, he's taking a picture of them."

I turned around and said "I write for two college basketball sites and I am going to talk about this in my article.  It's the only reason I would take a picture of this."

She replied "I guess you heard me".  I responded "Yes, I did."  Even with a raucous atmosphere, my ears can still pick up a smarmy comment.

With Wagner up 31-29,  LIU scored seven straight points, including a three pointer by Brickman that put the Blackbirds up 36-31 before Mario Moody's dunk cut the lead to three, 36-33 at the half.  Brickman, who looks like Joey Rodriguez' younger brother, also shoots like him.  He was three of three from beyond the arc in the first half.

There were also warning signs for the Seahawks. Several of their front court players would get in foul trouble in the first half.  Thompson, Williams, Naofall Folohan and Tyler Murray each picked up two fouls.  Danny Hurley was not happy with the officiating and actually stayed on the court a few seconds after the first half ended to voice his displeasure.

The second half started with Wagner coming out strong.  Williams, Murray and Kenny Ortiz hit layups which put the Seahawks up one, 39-38 with a little less than seventeen minutes left in the game. The Seahawks' student section was now in full force.

But the Blackbirds responded with a 13-2 run due to their big three.  Olasewere started it with a three point play. He would add two more baskets.   Brickman, Boyd and Olasewere would all add foul shots to put LIU up 51-41 with 11:43 left.

By that time, Wagner was in serious foul trouble. Both Williams and Thompson  picked up their third and fourth fouls. Ortiz picked up two quick fouls to give him three total.  With most of his big in serious foul trouble, Hurley was down to the last forward in his rotation, the aforementioned Moody.

One intrepid Wagner student held a sign during the game "I'm feeling MOODY".  And Mario was feeling it too as he kept the Seahawks in the game with his inside play.  Over the span of five minutes, Moody had eight points, the last of which cut the Blackbirds lead to 56-52 with six and half minutes remaining.

The noise from the Wagner student section was now at its crescendo.  Facing an incredibly loud chant of "DE-FENSE", LIU was now at a critical moment of the game.  This is where they either rose to the occasion or wilted in the face of adversity.

Once again, the Blackbirds' big three responded.  Over the remaining six and a half minutes of the game, Brickman, Boyd and Olasewere combined would score the last seventeen points LIU scored.  Boyd's emphatic dunk with a little less than two minutes remaining put the Blackbirds up seven on their way to a convincing 73-66 win over the Seahawks.

Wagner had no answer for Boyd, who scored nineteen points and added fifteen rebounds.  Olasewere had eighteen points and Brickman had seventeen points and eight assists.   Moody had a double double for the Seahawks with twelve points and ten rebounds. Rivers led Wagner with seventeen points.  Williams added fourteen and Murray had eleven points for the Seahawks. Murray was honored before the game for scoring his 1000th career point in a previous game.

With the win, LIU is now firmly in first place in the NEC at 8-0, with a two game lead over three teams.  One of those teams is Wagner, who now has to battle out for second place with Robert Morris and CCSU. The Seahawks dreams of finishing first are likely dashed as the Blackbirds have the tiebreaker, since they swept the season series.

The NEC is one of the very few conferences that have their championship game on the highest remaining seed's home court.  Last season, Tieff and I were at LIU's Wellness Center for the NEC championship game.  After the Blackbirds' win Saturday night, there's a good chance we'll be back there in March.

1 comment:

  1. I just want to note that I forgot to include Monmouth as one of the NEC teams that won a play in game in the NCAA Tournament.  The Hawks defeated Hampton 71-49 in the 2006 play in game.  Thanks to John Templon and Jaden Daly for pointing that out to me.