It wasn’t the most attractive of outings, but when it came time to decide it, LIU Brooklyn’s veteran players did what they’ve done for much of this season: push the Blackbirds past the finish line in front.
Thursday night, it was Iverson Fleming and Jerome Frink who came up with the big plays to get them in position and Nura Zanna that pushed LIU Brooklyn over the top as they emerged with a 60-57 win over Sacred Heart at the Pitt Center.
Fleming and Frink are seniors, while Zanna has been with the program for four years, but redshirted his first season due to injury. And despite losing both Martin Hermannsson and Aakim Saintil somewhat unexpectedly (Hermannsson is playing in France, while Saintil transferred to Iona), and then seeing Joel Hernandez go down with a season-ending injury in the opener, LIU Brooklyn stands just a game behind league leaders Mount St. Mary’s and defending champ FDU, and is three games clear of fifth and a home game in the NEC Tournament.
The Blackbirds (14-8, 7-2) got off to a sluggish start Thursday, and trailed 10-3 six minutes in, but that would be Sacred Heart’s largest lead of the night. Yet, despite the efforts of Fleming, who had 12 points in the first half, including a couple of jumpers in transition, LIU Brooklyn led just 26-23 after a pretty ugly 20 minutes.
In the end, Sacred Heart (8-14, 3-6) never led in the second half, but they did come back to tie it 45-45 with 10 minutes left on a Chris Robinson three-pointer and Mario Matasovic putback. But Fleming answered with four points and Frink (13 pts., 15 rebs.) hit a long jumper to give the Blackbirds back a six-point lead. However, the Pioneers hung around and after Matusovic (just 2-13 from behind the arc before Thursday) passed on shooting a couple of times, he finally pulled the trigger and tied the game again at 57-57 on his third 3-pointer of the evening with 50.5 seconds remaining.
“Their guards were driving by us at will, and that created some easy baskets for other people,” Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina said. “You know Frink was going to get his, but we had to do a better job on Iverson. We knew coming off a bad game against FDU, he probably wasn’t going to do that again. I liked our gameplan and I thought we executed it pretty well, it just wasn’t quite enough.”
Sacred Heart appeared to have Zanna (8 pts., 10 rebs.) pinned on the baseline with the shot clock running down on the ensuing possession, but he found a way to hit an awkward left-handed layup surrounded by three Pioneers to give LIU Brooklyn a 59-57 edge with 27.2 seconds left. Quincy McKnight was fouled soon after, but the 79% free throw shooter missed both. Sacred Heart still had a chance to tie at the buzzer, but Matej Buovac’s corner three fell off and the Blackbirds had another NEC victory, while the Pioneers had another tough loss, and remains tied for seventh (with Robert Morris) and a game ahead of St. Francis Brooklyn for the final NEC Tournament playoff spot.
— Ron Ratner (@NECHoopsRon) January 27, 2017
“Any time you get a win on the road, it’s a good win,” LIU Brooklyn coach Jack Perri said. “I don’t think we’ve played to our potential at all. We’ve gutted out wins, especially on the defensive end. We’ve done really well rebounding. That play by Zanna to put it in with his left hand was huge.”
What else did we learn before 327 paying customers at the Pitt Center?:
1) Not the season for NEC offense
We’re used to freewheeling guard-dictated play in the NEC over the years, but not this season, and the numbers – now halfway through the conference season – are pretty crystal clear. Of course, they may not be alternate fact proof, but the NEC is currently 32nd in offensive efficiency (0.995 ppp), and there are only 32 Division I conferences. They are also 31st in eFG% (48.2%) and 32nd in three-point shooting (32.1%). Perhaps the most disappointing of all, the NEC being just 27th in adjusted tempo, with Wagner and Central Connecticut playing super slow and LIU Brooklyn and St. Francis Brooklyn not far behind. Only Sacred Heart (54th) and St. Francis U. (72nd) are in the top 100 nationally.
“It was ugly offense throughout, that’s what we face when we have Jerome (Frink) and Z (Nura Zanna), who have been so good in league play,” Perri said. “Their whole focus was swallowing those guys up. We took 15 threes in the first half, and we haven’t done that all year. Second half, we took one, and we talked about it, know who we are and what we do. We shot 52% in the second half, and it was much better. It was a weird flow to the whole game, but credit to our guys for sticking with it.”
2) Iverson Fleming steps up
Fleming has always played a role at LIU Brooklyn in his career, but was never counted on to be a leader until circumstances dictated so with all the departures this season. But – despite being held scoreless by FDU last weekend – Fleming has shown he is up to the task as he did Thursday with 22 points, just four off his career high. He has been in double figures in 16 of the last 17 games, and senses the urgency that seniors often feel, knowing this is his last chance to make a return to the NCAA Tournament.
“He’s so locked in, he wants to have a great senior season,” Perri said. “His defense sparks his offense. I put him on the other team’s best player night in and night out, and he’s got such great stamina. It’s not easy, he’s got to be pretty tired.”
Said Fleming: “With this being my fourth year, Zanna’s too, and Frink is an older captain as well, it’s big time, especially when you have freshmen that can play. We showed true character, and the will to win. It’s always great to have veterans out there.”
3) Still time for Sacred Heart, but…
It’s three straight losses for the Pioneers, and road trips to Mount St. Mary’s and FDU await. Sacred Heart has had trouble with turnovers, but that wasn’t the problem Thursday with just 13 (19.7%), it was just poor shooting (21-59 for 35.6%) with Quincy McKnight shooting 6-18 and Joseph Lopez held to only 10 points on 5-11 from the field (and no free throws).
Sacred Heart is seventh in offensive efficiency in the NEC, and it’s probably worse than that, they are in front of three teams that have been among the worst in the nation on offense: Central Connecticut, Robert Morris, and St. Francis Brooklyn. Turnovers and the lack of free throws (15 Thursday) combined with poor shooting are a deadly combination. In that way, players like Matasovic, Buovac, and Chris Robinson will give them a huge spark if they can make some shots.
“It’s like a reoccurring bad dream here,” Latina said. “We keep getting chances, but we keep falling short. Obviously, you have to give Zanna credit for making a tough, tough finish late. We get that stop, hold it for one in a tie game, who knows? That’s the difference between winning and losing. There’s not a whole lot of difference, but we’re struggling to finish games and a lot of times you win these games with a big play.”