"The NEC is great basketball. Those that don't get to see it
don't know what they're missing"
Jim Ferry - Head Coach
Long Island University
Coach Ferry's comments should be taken to heart by all NYC hoops fans. Simply saying "NO" to the awful basketball played by the local NBA teams and saying "YES" to the inspired and exciting basketball played by local NEC teams is definitely an option. Especially in March.
Coach Ferry's Blackbirds defeated the Knights of Fairleigh Dickinson 63-61 in the quarterfinal round of the Northeast Conference Men's Basketball Tournament on Thursday night. These teams last met in Brooklyn exactly fourteen days ago, in a game that never led anyone to believe tonight's matchup would have been this intense. Don't worry - that February game was still a better basketball viewing investment than the NBA most days.
First-year head coach Greg Vetrone had his FDU team firing on all cylinders from tonight's opening tip. Compared to the chess-like viewing expectation of "pro-game" opening minutes, the Knights raced to a 13-1 lead before the first media timeout. "We had too much energy," said Brooklyn native and LIU senior guard Jaytornah Wisseh afterwards. "After the first couple of minutes, it became a regular basketball game."
The Blackbirds slowly erased the early deficit as a Kenny Onyechi putback gave LIU their first lead of the game, 21-20. For the remaining eight minutes of the first half, neither team could manage more than a five-point lead, as Wisseh's jumper at the one-minute mark tied the game at 32. The Knights shot 44 percent from the floor in the first half, while the Blackbirds recovered from their 0-for-7 start to shoot 32 percent. Both teams combined for just 11 turnovers and amassed a total of 42 rebounds in a hard-fought effort on both side of the court and the basketball. Freshman swingman Jamal Olasewere pulled down eight defensive boards, on his way to double-digit rebounds at halftime.
FDU could not re-kindle their early game pace to start the second half, as neither team could claw ahead by more than three points for the first nine minutes. An NBA-three by Sean Baptiste gave FDU a five-point lead with just over ten minutes remaining, but jumpers by Olasewere and David Hicks closed the gap to one. With the Knights defense effectively shutting down Wisseh, the Blackbirds were forced to look elsewhere for offense and 6'1" guard Michael Culpo rose to the challenge.
His back-to-back three-pointers swung a five-point lead in the direction of LIU. "I felt comfortable, and shot real good in warm-ups," Culpo commented on his five field goals that all came from behind the arc.
After a pair of free throws put the Blackbirds up by seven, Terence Grier started a 10-4 run to close the gap to just a point at the four-minute mark. Wisseh converted one free throw, only to have Grier drive the paint and tie the game at 61 with just over two-minutes remaining. Seconds later, Culpo fed Onyechi in the paint to account for the final points of the game. The teams combined for seven missed shots for the final 90 seconds, as every loose ball and rebound were contested with the effort worthy of an elimination game.
Fourth-seeded LIU heads to Hamden, CT to face the top seeded Quinnipiac Bobcats in their semifinal matchup. "We gave them a good game up there," Wisseh commented on the Blackbirds last trip north - a game in which the Blackbirds out-rebounded the Bobcats, the only time it's occurred this season.
Based on tonight's effort - it's hard to imagine anything other option in the NEC Men's Basketball Tournament.