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LIU Brooklyn wins NEC tourney again, gains NCAA berth

The SportsXchange

NEW YORK -- LIU Brooklyn became the first team in the 32-year history of the Northeast Conference to claim three straight tournament titles when it knocked off Mount St. Mary's, 91-70, Wednesday night.

By virtue of the win, the Blackbirds (20-13) received an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It was the fourth straight game where they scored 90 points or more.

Mount St. Mary's (18-14) was seeking to become the first school in the NEC to win a conference championship by winning all three tournament games on the road. The Mountaineers ousted top-seeded Robert Morris in the semifinals.

But coach Jamion Christian's team ran into a human buzz saw in LIU Brooklyn's C.J. Garner. The senior guard led the Blackbirds with a career-high 31 points, displaying a variety of spin moves, floaters and ball-handling skills that the Mountaineers found difficult to defend.

The 5-10 Garner, who was voted the tournament MVP, has scored at least 30 points in three of his last four games and is averaging 23.4 points in his last 11 games. Garner's 84 points in the three tournament games is two points shy of Robert Morris' Chipper Harris record, set in 1983.

LIU Brooklyn's Jamal Olasewere, the NEC Player of the Year, scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

The Mountaineers, who saw their nine-game win streak snapped, received 21 points from Sam Prescott and 12 points from Kristijan Krajina off the bench.

Fueled by a packed crowd of 1,700 chanting "Three Peat" at The Wellness Center, the Blackbirds used a 14-2 run to start the second quarter to roll ahead 49-35 with 14:17 left to play. Garner scored five in the run and Olasewere chipped in with four points.

Mount St. Mary's got to within 11 points at 57-46 at the 11:14 mark, then fell prey to another big run from the Blackbirds. Garner tabulated nine points in a 14-2 blitz that increased his teams lead to 71-48 with 7:53 to go.

Mount St. Mary's trademark 3-point shooting, which had been effective in the first half, abandoned it in the second. The Mounties sank 3-of-18 3-pointers in the second half. They entered the game 10th in the country in successful 3-pointers at 8.5

"We have a young team. I think we got caught up in the hype of the moment," said Christian. "The guys got a little antsy. They didn't share the ball well. We had good looks and they didn't go in."

A lot of that had to do with LIU's perimeter defense.

"We changed up to a 2-3 zone to extend it and take away those 3-point shots," LIU Brooklyn coach Jack Perri said. "I actually asked C.J. (Garner) at halftime if he wanted to stay in the 2? He said he did.

"I trust him so much and it worked."

In his first year as coach at LIU, Perri has been overcoming adversity all season. The Blackbirds lost the returning NEC Player of the Year, Julian Boyd, to an ACL tear in December. He was among the four LIU players suspended in the aftermath of an on-campus brawl. The suspensions led to a 1-3 start in NEC play and six straight losses from late December to the second week in January.

"I wasn't sure which way it would go when we lost six in a row," Perri said, "but they showed me what they're made of."

The Mountaineers defense was exposed all night as the Blackbirds were able to convert easy transition baskets. LIU Brooklyn scored 16 points off the nation's worst defense when it comes to field goal percentage. Mount St. Mary's ranks last in the country in the category as teams shoot better than 51 percent against them.

LIU Brooklyn shot 61.4 percent Tuesday night.

"We just didn't get enough defensive stops," Christian said. "You don't see too many championship games where a team shoots 64 percent."

The first half was played at break-neck speed, featuring five lead changes and four ties. Neither team maintained more than an eight-point advantage.

The Blackbirds scored six straight points to end the half and took a 35-31 lead, erasing a 31-29 Mountaineers lead. Mount St. Mary's used its trademark long-range shooting to grab an early 20-12 advantage.

Prescott connected on each of his first four 3-point attempts in that run and finished the half with 15 points. Not to be outdone, his backcourt opponent, Garner, deposited 14 first-half points. Garner was particularly effective driving the lane, as the Blackbirds collected 24 points in the paint before the break.

The nine-game winning streak was the third longest win streak by a Mountaineers team since the school moved to Division 1 in 1988-89.

NOTES: Perri and Christian are both finalists for the Joe B. Hall Award, presented to the top first-year coach in Division I. ... Mount St. Mary's guard Shivaughn Wiggins was named the Northeast Conference's Rookie of the Year, only the second time in school history a player received that award. He averaged 9.6 points per game and shot 46.8 percent from 3-point range. ... LIU Brooklyn entered the game ranked sixth in the country in scoring (79.1 ppg) and 14th in offensive field-goal percentage (47.9). ... The Blackbirds also were second in the nation in free-throw attempts per game (26.1) and third in makes per game (18.0).
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