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Northeast Conference championship game: LIU Brooklyn completes improbable run to NCAA Tournament

The Blackbirds beat top-seeded Wagner in Staten Island.

NCAA Basketball: LIU Brooklyn vs St. John's Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

A year after getting fired from UMass, Derek Kellogg is bringing a team to the NCAA Tournament.

Kellogg’s LIU Blackbirds defeated Wagner on Tuesday, 71-61, on the road to win the Northeast Conference championship.

The Blackbirds came into the conference tournament as the No. 4 seed after compiling a 10-8 league record in an inconsistent season. Their journey from mid-January to mid-February included a three-game winning streak, three-game losing streak, four-game winning streak, and a brief two-game skid.

But when the tournament started, LIU found its way. It started with a 23-point drubbing of borough rival St. Francis-Brooklyn — a team the Blackbirds split with in the regular season. Fifth-year senior Joel Hernandez had 26 points in that one and as a team, LIU held the Terriers to 32 percent shooting and 0.76 points per possession.

In the semis, against No. 6 seed Fairleigh Dickinson, it wasn’t quite as easy. Both teams traded extended runs and with just over five minutes left, the Blackbirds led by seven. Then the Knights scored 11 unanswered points. Ultimately, it came down to a pair of free throws from Jashaun Agosto with three seconds left. Hernandez had 25 points and Raiquan Clark scored 28.

That set up Tuesday’s game against the regular season champion Seahawks in the bandbox that is the Spiro Sports Center. The Blackbirds jumped out to an early lead after a disjointed first half — the Blackbirds led 34-18 after 20 minutes with little flow to it whatsoever. In the second half, Wagner made its runs, as expected. But LIU had an answer every time.

Hernandez had 32 points and made 11 of his 14 free throws while Clark had 20 points and eight boards. The Blackbirds shot 53 percent for the game.

With the win, LIU is likely headed to Dayton for a First Four matchup, though that depends on what other Champ Week upsets happen.