Championship Wednesday has arrived and by 9:00 pm or so, a new NEC men’s basketball tournament champion will be crowned.For Long Island, it has been a long road since they last found NEC glory back in 1997. In those days, it was the run-and-gun Blackbirds with 30-point per game scorer Charles Jones leading a high-powered attack that also included New York City playground legends Richie Parker and Mike Campbell. The trio helped pack the old Brooklyn Paramount with an entertaining, freewheeling style of hoops. In that 1997 title game, Monmouth slowed the game down to a crawl whenever possible, but it was Jones – the nation’s leading scorer that year – that burned the Hawks in the final 30 seconds with one of the better one-on-one moves you will ever see. Parker then iced the game at the line, causing “Pandemonium at the Paramount.”
There are certainly similarities between the 1997 and 2011 versions of the Blackbirds. This year’s LIU team is also a high-scoring outfit that piles up points in transition and spends much of the game at the free throw line.While the current incarnation of the Blackbirds may lack a superstar of Jones’s caliber, they more than make up for it with balance and a nine-deep rotation. LIU proved that in Sunday’s semifinal win over Central Connecticut State with 33 of the team’s 69 points coming from reserves, including a game-high 16 from super-sub Jason Brickman and 10 more from sharpshooter Michael Culpo. On the other side, Robert Morris is one win away from making history as the first program to ever win three consecutive Northeast Conference Tournament championships. The Colonials are already the winningest program in NEC history with seven titles, and a win this year could go down as the sweetest of them all. Robert Morris is without the services of leading scorer and 2010 NEC Tournament MVP Karon Abraham, who is out with an Achilles injury. Down to just eight rotation players – six of whom are underclassmen – the Colonials have gutted out two postseason wins, mainly due to the performances of sophomore captain Velton Jones. Jones leads all NEC players with 21.0 points and 7.0 assists per game in the postseason, a huge leap from his season averages of 11.9 ppg and 4.0 apg. Talk about stepping up. With the score tied at 62 on Sunday, Jones somehow hit a fadeaway runner – if that’s even possible – with 4.3 seconds to play to beat Quinnipiac and punch a ticket to tonight’s finale.
Was it deja-vu? Big shot Velton hit a similar runner late in last year’s NEC title game as well.So tonight it’s the Steel City versus the Big Apple. These two teams met in the first-ever NEC title game 30 years ago and will lace them up again tonight at 7:00 pm on ESPN2. The question is this: Who Will Go Dancing? (Posted March 9, 2011)