NEW YORK – It may be the third time in a row LIU Brooklyn has won the Northeast conference tournament, but this championship was anything but secure for the Blackbirds.
C.J. Garner scored 31 points and LIU Brooklyn punched its ticket for the NCAA tournament with a 91-70 win over Mount St. Mary's on Tuesday night in the tournament finals.
Third-seeded LIU (20-13) was coming off a season in which four of its players were suspended in the fall for their role in a fight and reigning NEC player of the year Julian Boyd tore his ACL in December.
So, beating the fifth-seeded Mountaineers (18-14) was perhaps the sweetest victory in the three-peat.
"Me and C.J. talked about everything we've been through from the suspensions, your player of the year goes down — it could have gone both ways," said senior Jamal Olasewere. "We knew this one was personal."
Watson and Olasewere seemed determined not to let this one slip through their fingers. Watson's 31 points were a career high and Olasewere added 15 points and 10 rebounds to help coach Jack Perri become the third coach in the conference to win the title in his first year on the job.
Perri, who had been an assistant for the Blackbirds before being promoted this season, said this was the sweetest of the three titles for him.
"I'm very emotional right now because of what we went through," he said. "(It was a) totally different book than the last two years, totally different story. Everything went right the last two years and this year they had to show their true colors."
After a frantic back-and-forth first half, LIU Brooklyn opened the second half with a 35-31 lead. Led by a decisive dunk by Olasewere and a three-point play from Garner, the Blackbirds went on a 13-4 run to go ahead by 13 only 6 minutes into the half.
LIU Brooklyn didn't allow Mount St. Mary's to pull closer than 12 the rest of the way.
The enthusiastic LIU Brooklyn crowd, which spent much of the second half chanting "Brooklyn Three-peat", stormed the floor to celebrate what was a career night for Garner and a definitive statement for the small LIU program.
"You have to have a monster recruiting class that's essentially better than anyone else's in the league," said Mountaineers coach Jamion Christian. "I think them being able to do that with a coaching change and all of the adversity in the beginning of the year really speaks to them and their hearts as champions."
LIU Brooklyn's win cut Mount Saint Mary's comeback from an ugly start to the season a bit short. The fifth-seeded Mountaineers came in riding a nine-game win streak after upsetting top-seeded Robert Morris for a chance to play in the finals. A win for Mount St. Mary's would have topped an impressive turnaround for the team, which started a dismal 2-6 in conference play.
During the first half, it seemed as though the Mountaineers would take this one. LIU Brooklyn didn't grab its first lead until more than 10 minutes had passed. From there, it was back-and-forth with five lead changes until the Blackbirds took over in the second half.
Sam Prescott, who scored 19 points, started 4-for-4 from 3-point range before going cold in the second half for the Mountaineers,
"I think we were down four or five and our guys got a little antsy," said Christian. "We didn't share the ball."
Garner scored 17 of his points and Olasewere 10 after the break for the Blackbirds, who shot close to 68 percent in the second half.
Garner, who averaged 28 points during the tournament, was named its most valuable player, in a game that gave the LIU Blackbirds a place in the NEC record book for most consecutive conference wins.
"Ever since last year, history has really been on the board (for us)," said Olaseware. "We really wanted to come back and create history. We had minor setbacks but we're a family. They wrote us off but we came back and did what we had to do and we made history."