The Blackbirds captured their second straight NEC tournament title with a 90-73 home victory over Robert Morris in front of a jubilant sellout crowd.
Unlike last season, when the Blackbirds needed overtime to secure the title, LIU took much of the drama out of this game early. RMU’s star point guard Velton Jones went down hard after a layup just a minute into the game. He returned, but never really seemed the same.
In the meantime the Blackbirds went about establishing a game plan that was far removed from the one they failed to execute when they lost at Robert Morris during the regular season. Midway through the first half the Colonials looked to be in control, up 19-15, but the Blackbirds exploded for 13-straight points to take a lead they’d never relinquish.
The reason LIU was able to hang onto the lead was the spectacular play of sophomore point guard Jason Brickman. Early in the season the Blackbirds struggled a bit while Brickman worked to define his role in the offense. As conference play started he seemed to get more comfortable taking on a scoring role as well as a playmaking one. In the NEC tournament that experience was on full display.
“I think just playing more games and getting practice in,” Brickman said about how he turned it around. “Just getting chemistry together in my first year as a starter and playing with these guys more minutes.”
Brickman set single game, championship and tournament records for assists as the Blackbirds rolled through the competition for the title. In the championship he had 18 points and 11 assists. While teammate Julian Boyd was named tournament MVP, he gave his credit for all his success.
“I definitely wouldn’t have got player of the year. I wouldn’t get all the accolades and we would not be where we are without him,” Boyd said.
As Jones struggled with injured ribs the Colonials struggled to find anyone that could contain LIU’s dynamic triggerman. Whether it was getting into the lane for layup, or firing a pass out onto the wing Brickman made the right decision more often than not during his 35 minutes on the court.
“He was incredible,” said RMU head coach Andy Toole about Brickman. “He has an uncanny ability to read a defense.”
Brickman said he developed that ability by watching NBA point guards like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd play. Knicks super fan Spike Lee, who was in attendance on Wednesday, would certainly approve.
Now that LIU has conquered the mountain of back-to-back NEC titles, a new challenge begins. The NEC hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2008 when Mount St. Mary’s defeated Coppin State in the play-in game. Next weekend LIU will have a chance to change that, hopefully as a 15 seed or better. Whatever higher seed awaits is in for a difficult challenge. Brickman, Boyd and Jamal Olasewere can cause matchup problems for any team.
“One of my goals at the beginning of the season was to win a game in the NCAA tournament,” Brickman said. “I think with a lot of guys back from last year we have experience. I think we’re going to be a lot more comfortable going in.”
Now they’ll have that shot.