March Madness has officially begun! For me, it honestly doesn’t get any better than watching four NEC tournament quarterfinals games on a weekday evening. The chaos that ensues for three hours is something to behold.
I did my best to absorb all of the Wednesday night action and wanted to record my thoughts of each contest. Even if it was with a heavy heart after my Pioneers lost a tough one to a veteran LIU Brooklyn squad. In fact, let’s start with the game in Fairfield…
Three-Point Shooting Carries LIU Brooklyn in NECT Upset
In one of my first years as a “glorious” blogger for NYC Buckets, I went to a game in Maryland. The road team lost that December matchup, mainly because they couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn. Afterwards, I sought out the head coach, but he wasn’t in much of a mood to talk to me. (And I don’t blame him.) His money quote to me that night ending up being something like, “If you don’t make shots on the road, you aren’t going to win.”
As simplistic as that is – obviously the coach wasn’t about to share any of the hairy details for why his team shot so poorly – Anthony Latina likely felt the same way after the game last night. The Pioneers were hosting a NEC tournament quarterfinal for only the second time in nine seasons, and what unfortunately transpired was one of their worst shooting performances of the season. They converted a meager two triples out of 20 attempts after making 36.9% in 18 regular season games. Many of those misses were open looks, not necessary a product of LIU’s defense.
The charity stripe was unkind to the Pioneers as well – they left eight points off the scoreboard after shooting 63.6% in the contest, a far cry from their league leading 79.3% mark versus NEC competition. There may be no explanation other than the moment was possibly a little too big for the second least experienced team in the NEC.
On the flip side, a veteran LIU Brooklyn squad made the most of their opportunities from behind the arc, draining 11 of 24 (45.8%).
These two programs share some recent history in the NEC tournament, as each were exactly in the same position three years ago, at least with respect to their seeding. Back then in the 3-seed/6-seed matchup, the hosting Pioneers watched role player Iverson Fleming torch them in the first half, finishing the playoff contest with 18 points on 7 shots. Fleming had as many 3s (3 for 3) in the game as Sacred Heart had combined (3 for 20). This time around was almost like deja vu for Latina.
After making just two triples all season, Eral Penn made 3 of 5 from long distance. Jashaun Agosto, known far more for his ability to go downhill and attack the rim, made all three of his 3-point attempts. One of those buckets came at a critical time. With the shot clock winding down and the Blackbirds up three late, Agosto’s attempt at the top of the key found nothing but nylon, giving LIU a 2-possession cushion. As the old saying goes, guard play wins championships.
In all, six of Derek Kellogg’s players hit a 3-pointer and their free throw shooting down the stretch was just enough to keep the charging Pioneers at bay. When you hold a 27-point advantage from 3 and shoot 14 percentage points better from the charity stripe, you’re winning most of the time. You can afford to lose the battle on the backboards (-6), score less points in the paint (-12) and commit more turnovers (-5) as long as you do one thing significantly better than your opponent. The Blackbirds made shots on the road, and they won. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.
A Highlight Reel in Hackensack
The Knights came into the NEC tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 11 of their last 13. They won those 11 by an average of 10 points per victory. They shot a blistering 51.1% (214 of 418) on their 2s, 47.3% on their 3s (88 of 186) and dished out 165 assists against 131 turnovers for a splendid 1.26 A/TO on those victorious nights. Their offense had basically matched the program’s incredible level three years prior, when a core of Darian Anderson, Stephon Jiggetts, Marques Townes and Earl Potts lead the league in offensive efficiency. The high flying, shot-making, crisp passing Knights under Greg Herenda were back and seniors Mike Holloway and Darnell Edge were a part of it for the second time.
Wagner was up against an offensive juggernaut, but if anyone could quell FDU’s attack it would be defensive mistro Bashir Mason, right? The start of the game were promising enough for Mason’s Seahawks. Two triples by Romone Saunders and Elijah Davis and two empty possessions by FDU spotted Wagner a 6-0 lead more than 3:30 in. And then the fireworks started in Hackensack. What transpired was an offensive masterpiece – the Knights closed the first half out with 43 points on their next 23 possession for an absurd 1.87 points per possession. In those 23 possessions, the Knights came up empty just four times, while scoring in their final seven times down the court.
When the dust settled, Wagner didn’t know what hit them, trailing 43-14. Five Knights scored in double figures led by NEC all-conference second teamer Holloway and his 18 points on 7 shots. The ever versatile Elyjah Williams had 17, while sharpshooter Darnell Edge “only” contributed with 15. Jahlil Jenkins was his heady floor general self, dishing out six assists versus just one turnover. How he didn’t make an all-conference team is beyond me, but I digress.
Greg Herenda now possesses a career record of 5-3 in the NEC tournament, including a perfect 3-0 mark at home. That flawless record at the Rothman Center will be tested with Andy Toole and the defensive minded Colonials coming to town. Does Matty McConnell guard Darnell Edge? Who do you match up on the suddenly resurgent Holloway? What is Toole’s game plan for keeping Jenkins in front of his defenders?
It’ll be a fascinating chess match on Saturday, but for now, let’s sit back and admire the beautiful team basketball Herenda’s group has exhibited over the past six weeks. It sure is fun to watch them in transition…
On the offensive glass…
And in the half court with the sick stepback…
This is a special offensive unit.
Robert Morris Finds a Way
Coming into tonight, the Terriers haven’t been good on the road (3-6 in NEC play) whereas the Colonials have taken well to the cozy NAC gym with a 7-2 mark against conference foes. Andy Toole had bested Glenn Braica twice this season, and has gone 7-2 at home in the NEC tournament. Conversely, Braica is 2-7 in the conference playoffs with his only two victories coming during the Terriers magical 23-win season in 2014-15.
Want more kindling on the fire? The best defense in the NEC is a perfect 11-0 in league play when they hold their opponents to under 65 points or less. St. Francis Brooklyn could only muster 0.88 points per possession in their two losses (49 and 62 points, respectively) to their Pennsylvania rival. Throw in a 400 mile trip from Brooklyn to Moon Township and all signs point toward an easy victory for the hosting Colonials. Right?
Not so fast.
(Image of KenPom Chart)
At that point in the contest, the Terriers held a 55-47 lead with 4 minutes remaining. KenPom gave them a 95% chance to pull out it out and would have given the program their first NEC tournament victory since their memorable 2014-15 campaign.
But then, Matty McConnell happened.
McConnell was awesome in what could’ve been his final game as a Colonial – he finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks (!) in what turned out to be an overtime victory. But it was also the Colonials defense that kept them alive in regulation, holding the Terriers to one point in their final 7 possessions in regulation. Malik Petteway, the modern day Chris Wray, put his stamp on the defensive effort.
The defense continued the momentum into the overtime, holding the shellshocked Terriers to one 3-pointer in five possessions. By then, the Colonials had a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. It was a phenomenal comeback led by McConnell and, surprise suprise, an Andy Toole coached defense. The victory was Toole’s 13th NEC tournament win against seven defeats.
Survive and Advance
It’s not easy having a bullseye on your back. Saint Francis University learned that lesson the hard way in last season’s NEC tournament when the 7-seeded FDU Knights upset the 2-seeded Red Flash in Loretto. In a similar situation yesterday, Rob Krimmel’s team jumped out to a comfortable 18-point lead at the half on the visiting Bryant Bulldogs.
One sluggish second half later and the Red Flash survived with a 4-point victory. It wasn’t pretty in that second stanza, but like Mount St. Mary’s (over Sacred Heart by 3 points in 2017 NECT QF) and Fairfield Dickinson (over SFU by 2 points in the 2016 NEC QF) before them, all you have to do is survive and advance. And that’s exactly what the kids from Loretto did. They may have only scored 1.03 ppp against the league’s worst defense from an efficiency standpoint, but the name of the game is to win.
The big four of SFU – Keith Braxton, Isaiah Blackmon, Jamaal King and Andre Wolford – combined for 54 of the team’s 67 points. They’ll be tested on Saturday when the defending NECT champions come to town having won 5 of their last 6.
The road to a NEC tournament championship is never easy.