- Dalai Lama
NEW BRITAIN, Conn. - Perhaps because he saw me popping up everywhere he went like a unwanted nuisance, John Templon of Big Apple Buckets asked me earlier in the season to do a guest column on Long Island as they took on Quinnipiac
The two-time defending NEC champions lost that day, but it wasn't totally unexpected. Three of their top players decided to get in a fight in the fall and were originally bounced for the season, but on appeal had their sentences lowered to the first two conference games, of which the Quinnipiac game was the second.
Compounding matters for the Blackbirds, who also had a new head coach in Jack Perri, was reigning NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd tore his ACL just before the conference season was to begin (which rendered his suspension moot). Long Island did not play terribly against Quinnipiac, and I pointed out how important it was for Jamal Olasewere, the other half of LIU's dynamic front-court duo with Boyd, to stay disciplined, especially with the increased attention he was about to receive from opponents.
And then Olasewere got a technical and was in foul trouble throughout in Long Island's next game (eventually fouling out), a home loss to Wagner that put the Blackbirds at 0-3 in the NEC and virtually left for dead without Boyd.
But on the way to the scrapheap, the 2012-13 Long Island season turned itself around. The Blackbirds won six straight before losing a tough one to rival and NEC favorite Robert Morris heading into Thursday's clash with Central Connecticut. It was Olasewere leading the way, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds per game in his last seven. Perhaps more importantly, he hadn't fouled out in that span, either.
A strong left-handed 6-foot-7 athletic player in a league that doesn't have much size, Olasewere stood to be particularly dangerous against CCSU, who was one of the smallest teams in Division I and who best inside presence of late - freshman Brandon Peel - was hobbled with a sprained ankle.
The snow wasn't here yet, but it was coming, as the giddy kids in front of me let everyone know after word get out that school was cancelled throughout Connecticut on Friday.
Olasewere started the proceedings by making a layup, but then decided to launch a #superhoop, not his forte, and the result was predictable. Back inside, Olaswere scored twice more and LIU had an early 8-0 lead. However, Central coach Howie Dickenman went to a rarely seen (at this level) 3-2 zone, and for some reason it limited Olasewere's effectiveness.
Matt Hunter is one of the best stories of the NEC this season. Recruited to Central Connecticut mostly because his buddy Kyle Vinales
had found success there as a freshman, the junior college transfer has been the biggest reason the Blue Devils have exceeded expectations and were 6-4 in the NEC entering this game. Perhaps his most amazing stat: Hunter had played 40 minutes in each of Central's last five games. Rest? We don't need no stinking rest. After Vinales scored five quick points (the only ones he would get in the first half), Hunter caught fire.
Only a 32 percent shooter from behind the arc (but better of late), Hunter scored 11 straight CCSU points, including a pair of #superhoops, as he engaged in a sort of duel with Olasewere that ended with the Blackbirds clinging to a 32-30 lead at the half.
My seats were directly behind the LIU bench. Perri is not a terribly excitable young coach, he did have an interesting habit that he shares with me: he constantly carries around a bottle of water. And after one particularly dreadful stretch where the Blackbirds lost their discipline, the bottle of course got unceremoniously thrown to the ground, which led to a rather hilarious sequence of all the assistant coaches reaching beneath their chairs for the water bottle, with one almost falling over before getting it and handing back to Perri.
My real focus was Olasewere, and for the most part, he kept the discipline his team needed him to. When Hunter went on his scoring binge, he looked at his team at the next time out and said, "No more! That's it!" And they slowed him down. When Olasewere got himself out of control and turned the ball over on two consecutive possessions, he thumped his chest, "My bad, my bad."
Long Island's biggest on the court problem has been discipline on the defensive end, where they rank in the bottom 30 nationally in several categories, including points allowed and points per possession. But with the game on the line late, the defensive discipline magically appeared for the Blackbirds. They allowed just nine points in the final 5:30 of the game (four of which came in a discombobulated final 15 seconds in which LIU turned the ball over twice), and moved within sight of the top of the NEC with an 81-75 road win.
Olasewere finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds, missing only that one field goal early in the contest (12-for-13 from field), but the most important number may have been just three turnovers, two of which I already described.
A little discipline could go a long way toward a third straight NEC title.