BROOKLYN — LIU has been here before.
Two years ago, the then LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds rose from the No. 4 seed to the NEC tournament champions in Derek Kellogg’s first season.
The LIU Sharks find themselves in an eerily similar situation in 2020 and parts of the cast are the same. Raiquan Clark has gone from former walk-on to 2,000-point scorer. The backcourt still has Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts. All three of those players were key pieces of LIU’s last title team. Now they’re seniors and taking one last shot at trying to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a great experience,” Clark said. “The main goal is to just get back to the NEC championship and win another one. That’s what we’ve been talking about ever since we lost in the NCAA tournament two years ago, so we’re just trying to get back.”
While Joel Hernandez, who rose to another level during that 2018 run in March, is no longer on the team, Kellogg has put other experienced pieces around his senior trio, mostly through transfers. The roster may say that Ty Flowers, Jermaine Jackson and Jack Ballantyne are a junior and two sophomores, but they actually have an extra year of college basketball experience after transferring to LIU.
Add it all together and LIU has the 47th most experience among their rotation in the country, according to KenPom. And that experience is battle-tested.
It showed on Wednesday night against Fairleigh Dickinson as LIU built a 19-point lead with about 13 minutes remaining in the second half of the quarterfinals. The Sharks played with confidence even when Clark, the team’s offensive focal point, was forced out of the game early due to foul trouble. LIU had some of its best ball movement of the season and destroyed FDU’s defense.
“We have a pretty mature team that understands what it takes to win,” Kellogg said. “I have a pretty good group of guys and I’m pretty confident in a certain number of them.”
But that lead and veteran play disappeared for a 12-minute stretch in the second half. An FDU team with just one senior in the rotation, Kaleb Bishop, fought all the way back and even took the lead with 22 seconds remaining. The Sharks did some “young” things during that run too: careless turnovers, indecisive offense, and a lack of hustle on defense helped propel the FDU comeback.
But LIU’s experience paid off one more time after Elyjah Williams’s block of Clark went out of bounds and gave the Sharks one more chance with 4.1 seconds remaining. Kellogg drew up a play that got Batts a leaning right-handed layup that bounced off the backboard and in, preserving LIU’s dream of dancing once and extending the careers of Batts and his classmate for at least one more game.
“Coach told me to get open and my teammates trust me and I just went and made a play,” Batts said.
A crazy quarterfinal night in the NEC tournament around the league, where three games were decided by a total of four points, showed just how important that veteran presence is to have under the one-and-done pressure in March.
“When you’re trying to win a tournament or championship you have to have some plays like that,” Kellogg said. “There will probably be two or three more before the actual NEC champion is crowned, so hopefully we’re on the right side of that.”
LIU is hoping that their experience causes history to repeat itself.
The Sharks continue their trek through the NEC Tournament on Saturday against No. 1 seed Robert Morris.