Kaiyem Cleary intercepted a cross-court pass, dribbled up the right-hand side of the court, and released a 3-point shot from well beyond the arc. When it found nylon, Cleary went ballistic, pounding his chest while facing the camera at the other end of the court, as LIU head coach Rod Strickland called timeout.
The shot gave Cleary 35 points and put Le Moyne ahead by 15. A few minutes later, Cleary took the ball from the right wing and finished an and-one layup, convert the free throw and upped his tally to 43 points.
The total broke a school record first set in 1955 by Richard Kenyon, and matched in 1971 by Phillip Harlow, as Le Moyne defeated LIU 87-74 to improve to 4-2 in the NEC Saturday night.
It still hadn’t sunk in when he spoke to the media after the game.
“I don’t even know what to say right now, honestly,” Cleary said. “I’m still kind of just shocked at what just happened. It was a crazy game, and I was feeling it from the beginning.”
For head coach Nate Champion, it was the culmination of a more than half-decade-long relationship.
“I recruited Kai out of high school to Florida Southern when I was still down there,” Champion said. “And to get the opportunity to have him be a part of our program this year, and just seeing him grow as a person and a player, it has been awesome.”
Cleary, a Manchester, England native, played his freshman year at Florida Southern in 2018-2019, averaging five points and three rebounds per game. During that season, he and Champion’s relationship strengthened.
“Coach Champion recruited me, he gave me my first scholarship,” Cleary said. “I worked out with him every single day my freshman year, he put in so much work with me.”
After suffering a season-ending injury in the season opener in his sophomore year at Florida Southern, he played two years of JUCO basketball at Florida Southwestern State before playing sparingly at Ball State last year.
Now, in his final season of eligibility, he’s relishing the chance to reunite with Champion, and he’s made it count.
“Five years later, to come back and play for him again, it’s crazy,” he said. “All the work, all these years, it just showed out there tonight.”
Since Dec. 16, Cleary is averaging 19.7 points per game while shooting 48% from beyond the arc on six attempts per game. His stardom in the NEC has rewarded the faith of his coach, who took a chance on him not once, but twice.
“The biggest thing with Kai is he has the ability to erupt, but he wasn’t forcing the issue,” Champion said. “He does it on 25 shots, an incredibly efficient day for him. Perfect from the free-throw line, and he has seven boards to go with it, an assist and two blocks. For us, that’s a complete game, and that’s a feat in itself”
His 43-point outburst is the highest regulation total from a player in Division I this season. When I told him that, he was barely able to put it into words.
“Crazy, it’s crazy, everything is kind of sinking in,” Cleary said. “It’s a blessing, honestly. I’m thankful to be in this position to be around this group of guys, to be around the coaches and everybody at Le Moyne, I’m just grateful. I’m sure I’ll do some celebrating, but for now, I’m just letting it sink in.”
Cleary’s teammate, Isaiah Salter, was in awe of what he was seeing.
“It was a surreal experience for me, I had a front-row seat being able to be next to him while he was out there,” Salter said. “But honestly, none of the shots he made surprised me, this is what he does. So it was just amazing to see him have a night like that, I’m really happy for him.”
While the six three-pointers were the headliner, Cleary was able to attack the basket thanks to mismatches generated by the Dolphin offense.
“Everybody gets the ball,” Champion said of his offense’s ability to create advantages. “I mean, it’s no secret recipe, it’s hard to guard. Everybody’s a threat to shoot the ball, and it opens up the floor for us. It was a great day for me to see us really clicking offensively.”
As he heated up, Cleary’s confidence built, and he kept trusting himself to take shots on all three levels. He was taking more difficult shots, making more ambitious drives, and he was converting.
“Before the games, I’m telling myself ‘Go kill’,” Cleary said. “I’m a competitor, I go out there and I compete. I’m a confident person, so once I see a few go in, I say to myself that it’s going to be a long night for the other team.”
A long night it was for LIU, who simply had no answers despite Tai Strickland’s career-high 34.
Le Moyne was picked to finish dead last in the NEC, but sitting at 4-2, it’s been used as a chip on their shoulder.
“Being picked last, it gives you a boost, it gives you that thing that makes you want to go hard,” Cleary said.
“I just make sure our guys remember what we were picked in the preseason, daily,” Champion said. “And that’s a good motivator for us.”