Thursday, March 10, 2011

WhiteOut in Brooklyn as LIU Defeats Robert Morris in Overtime To Win NEC Championship

Today was one of those days.  I got into work early to get some projects done.  As busy as the morning was, my day came to a screeching halt around 11:45 AM when I saw a familiar extension as my phone rang.  It was the Hofstra Day Care number and I knew there couldn't be good news.  As I answered the phone, I found out my younger son, Jonathan, had a 101.2 fever.  I called my wife, told her news and that I was going to pick him up and take him home.

I got to the day care to see my son being held.  He was quite warm and quite mushy.  I took him home, then gave him Tylenol.  Then I spent the afternoon between playing with him and his seemingly thousands of matchbox cars while trying to keep up with my work e-mail.

Around  5:00 PM, I picked up older son Matthew from his afterschool program.  Shortly thereafter my wife got home and I ran out of the house.  I had plans.  My friends Mal, Tieff and I were meeting up in Brooklyn to see the NEC Championship game between Robert Morris and LIU-Brooklyn.

Now this game had some interesting subplots, well as far as I was concerned.  First, you had Long Island, where I live, playing Robert Morris, which is in Pittsburgh, where my family is from.  Second, my familiarity with LIU stems from my good friend Tony Bozzella being the former coach of the Lady Blackbirds before he went to Iona.  In his first season at LIU Brooklyn in 2001, the Lady Blackbirds won the NEC Championship.  It was the only time in history that LIU Brooklyn went to the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament.   They ended up traveling to Storrs and faced and lost to top seeded UConn.  It would also be one of the most memorable and hilarious road trips I ever took.

Finally, it was ten years ago this week that I saw Hofstra defeat Delaware at the Mack Center to win the America East Championship for the second year in a row (and before they headed to the CAA, much to the chagrin of Defiantly Dutch).  It was the last time I saw a team win a D1 mid major conference tournament championship.  I knew I was going to see one this night.  You had the defending NEC champion Colonials taking on the current regular season champion Blackbirds.  And it lived up to the billing and then some.

We got to the Wellness Recreation Athletic Center a couple of minutes into the game with Robert Morris ahead 9-7.  The WRAC, as it's known, is a 3,000 seat arena/gym that was built in 2005.  It has suites, an electronic scoreboard and it holds sound well.  Really well.  When we got there, the place was rocking.  And it was so packed that we were one of the last allowed in to the arena.  So even if you had tickets, you weren't getting in.

The only section available to us was the student section behnd the Robert Morris basket.  In fact we were sitting right next to the RMU pep band,   In the one section of seats was the pep band and Colonials' supporters (and RMU also had the entire section behind the RMU bench.  The rest of the seats on this end were entirely filled with Blackbirds' supporters.

So there was Mal, Tieff and I standing with the LIU students. most of them clad in white for "The Whiteout".  And we joined in on the cheering for the Blackbirds and heckling of the RMU players, especially at the free throw line.   In all the years of going to college basketball games, I never acted like a student (that's me in the green sweater), till  this game.  It was different and it was fun.

The game was a nip and tuck affair for the entire 45 minutes.  Robert Morris led most of the first half. Russell Johnson buried several threes in the first half for the Colonials.  But Jamal Olasewere kept the Blackbirds close with seventeen first half points. Olasewere actually had a chance to tie the game at the half, but only hit one of two free throws.  LIU struggled from the line at the first half shooting 6 of 13 from the charity stripe.   Instead of being up by a few points at the half, the Blackbirds trailed the Colonials 33-32.

The second half saw LIU finally take a substantial lead as the Blackbirds outscored the Colonials 18-8 over the first six minutes.  They were led by Jason Brickman, who reminded the three of us of Joey Rodriguez on VCU, only a little more disciplined.  Brickman nailed two three pointers, two free throws and assisted on a layup to put LIU 50-41 with 14:08 left.

But the Colonials would not go away. Robert Morris responded with a 8-1 spurt over a nearly two and half minute period.  Lijah Thompson would score five points and add an assist to make the score 51-49 LIU with 11:46 left.    The pace though was definitely in the favor of LIU.  And the Blackbirds would again go on a spurt, this time a 8-2 spurt as Brickman assisted on two more baskets as LIU went up  59-51.  The lead would still be eight,72-64 with 2:29 left. It looked like LIU was going to win the game.

But Robert Morris wouldn't quit.  The Colonials battled for two offensive rebounds on their next possession and scored a basket.  RMU pressed, forced a steal  and that would lead to a three pointer which cut the deficit to three.  After the teams traded baskets, with 55 seconds left and the ball, LIU tried to run the clock down instead of running their offense.  Towards the end of the possession, the Blackbirds tried to force a play and it ended up in the hands of Thompson.  The Colonials found Johnson for an open three point look and he buried it to tie the game at 74.  LIU missed a shot at the buzzer and it was only fitting that we had overtime.

The momentum appeared to be on Robert Morris' side and the Colonials scored the first basket in overtime to go up two.  The teams traded points and RMU was still up 80-78 with 2:29 left.  Then Olasewere made a jumper to tie the game and Robert Morris turned the ball over on their next possession.  Again, Olasewere scored and the Blackbirds were up two.

One of the key factors on the night was that both teams struggled at the free throw line and in the next three possessions,  three free throws were missed.   Johnson missed one, then Olasewere, then Johnson again.  Neither team could seemingly capitalize on the charity stripe.  The lead was only one, 83-82 with 44 seconds left and LIU had the ball.  The Robert Morris fans chanted DE-FENSE while the LIU fans were in a frenzy.

Again, one of the most prolific offenses in the NCAA decided to run the clock down instead of running their offense and fired up a three with only a few second s left on the shot clock. Fortunately for the Blackbirds, they grabbed not one but two offensive rebounds and Brickman was fouled with seven seconds left.  The Joey Rodriguez clone sank both free throws and Robert Morris called timeout after a long pass with six seconds left and the chance to tie.

The above video that I took at the end of the game tells the final part of the story.  But for those of you who don't want to sit through the video, Robert Morris had two semi open three point attempt looks but missed both and time expired with the LIU fans storming the court having won an 85-82 thriller in overtime.  Mr. Mid Majority himself, Kyle Whelliston was at the game in his suit and a very sweet bow tie.   Bally was by his side at courtside. But when the fans stormed, so did Bally and Kyle.  Their video is here (Notice Bally about ten seconds in).

Instead of storming the court, Mal, Tieff and I viewed the festivities for a couple of minutes and then left through a back door.  Thanks to some LIU fans at the parking garage, instead of driving back down Myrtle Avenue which took forever for us to get to the WRAC, we took Flatbush Avenue (where we saw the construction started for the new Nets Arena) then headed to the BQE and home.  We all agreed we had to go back to the WRAC to see more games as we were impressed with LIU's relatively new arena.

When I got home, my older son Matthew was on his little chair bed in the living room, his best friend by his side.   I don't if he was having visions of championships and court stormings in his head but he seemed content.  I brought him upstairs and tucked him in.

Someday, perhaps he too will be seeing a championship game with a court storming.   Perhaps I will be there with him too.  It's something you have to see, and I was glad to see one again, ten years later.

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