E.J. Reed (AP)With five of its six leading scorers back from last year's 25-win team, LIU Brooklyn began the season as the clear favorite to win the NEC and return to the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.
The Blackbirds accomplished that goal in Tuesday's NEC title game by demolishing Mount St. Mary's 91-70, a feat made more impressive by the midseason adversity LIU endured that made a league championship seem unlikely.
In mid-December, reigning NEC player of the year Julian Boyd suffered a season-ending torn ACL, robbing LIU of its best player for the remainder of the season. The Blackbirds lost six straight games from Dec. 19 to Jan. 10, but gradually other players stepped up in Boyd's absence and carried the team back into contention in the NEC.
Jamal Olasewere became more comfortable in the role of go-to threat. C.J. Garner made a conscious effort to be more aggressive and shoulder more of the scoring load. And Jason Brickman continued to dish out assists at a national-leading pace, serving as the catalyst for a high-octane offense that produces nearly 80 points per game.
"Our guys had to adjust to new roles because Julian was such a big part of our offense," Perri said last month. "C.J. Garner needed to be more aggressive because he's capable and Jamal had to figure out he didn't have to do everything by himself. There were four or five games right after that where he was turning the ball over at an astronomical level, but he was just trying to do too much. Once he realized he was able to create for others, that helped us out a lot."
The new-look Blackbirds showed off their improvement this week during their run to the NEC tournament title.
Seeded third in the NEC despite winning 12 of their last 15 regular season games, the Blackbirds scored in the 90s all three tournament games, dispatching No. 6 Quinnipiac and No. 2 Wagner before running over Mount St. Mary's in the title game. The fifth-seeded Mountaineers upset top seed Robert Morris in the semifinals, and LIU benefited from the more favorable matchup.
The newly aggressive Garner led the charge with 31 points, rallying LIU from an early deficit and helping blow the game open early in the second half. Olasewere had 15 points and 11 rebounds and Brickman had his usual eight assists.
The past two years, LIU has gotten thumped by North Carolina and Michigan State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Thanks to their surprising revival, the Blackbirds will get one more chance next week to make history.