BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- As much fun as March is, it can be cruel, too.
On Sunday morning, four New York college hoops teams were preparing to play conference tournament semifinal games. All four were favored -- three regular season conference champs (Iona, Stony Brook, LIU Brooklyn) and a runner-up (Wagner). All had their sights set squarely on the NCAA tournament.
In the span of eight hours, two of the four had their dreams snuffed out. The other two survived, by the skin of their teeth.
LIU was one of the fortunate ones. The Blackbirds came from eight points behind with less than eight minutes remaining to sneak past Quinnipiac, 78-75, and advance to the Northeast Conference championship game.
“I thought our guys showed unbelievable character, played with fantastic poise,” said LIU coach Jim Ferry. “I’m just proud to be the coach of these guys, [with] the fortitude that they showed tonight.”
LIU (24-6) had only lost two conference games all year, and had swept a pair of games from Quinnipiac in the regular season. But the Bobcats gave the Blackbirds everything they could handle the third time around, coming from 10 points down late in the first half to take a 65-57 lead with 7:35 left.
With all the momentum going the other way, LIU responded with a 16-4 run from there, with 14 of the 16 points coming from NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd (21 points, nine rebounds) and point guard Jason Brickman (18 points, five assists).
The Blackbirds, who won the NEC tournament and went to the Big Dance a year ago, said the experience they gained last season has paid big dividends.” I feel like that experience has helped us throughout this season,” said forward Jamal Olasewere (13 points, seven rebounds). “It keeps us poised in situations.”
“I can say that in the huddles and the timeouts, there was no nervousness, there was no anxiety,” added Ferry. “They really all kept their poise and just kept talking about getting stops.”
“I thought LIU made a ton of poised plays and tough plays during their run, and we got a little skittery on the offensive end during that stretch,” said Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore. “They played like you expect a defending champion to play on their home court in the last eight minutes, and we didn’t make enough plays to match how good they were. We were probably two plays short.”
Now LIU is one win away from back-to-back trips to college basketball's promised land. On Wednesday evening, they’ll host the NEC championship game -- a rematch of last year’s thriller between the Blackbirds and Robert Morris, a game LIU won in overtime, 85-82.
In their only meeting of this season, Robert Morris knocked off LIU in Pennsylvania, 75-66.
“It is gonna take exactly what we had to do today to win that basketball game,” said Ferry. “We need to play with great poise, we need to trust each other, we need to play better than we did at Robert Morris -- they outplayed us at their place.
“They’re going to the conference championship game for the fourth time in a row -- they’ve been there, they know what it’s about, and it doesn’t surprise me that they’re there again. So I think it’s gonna be a very difficult challenge for us.”
The reason Robert Morris, the NEC's No. 3 seed, is back there again this season is that they upset Wagner in Staten Island earlier Sunday, 71-64.
Danny Hurley’s Seahawks set a new school record for wins with 25 this year, earning the No. 2 seed in the NEC. But it all comes down to the conference tournament in college basketball, as we all know.
Iona feels Wagner’s pain, and then some. The Gaels, the regular season champs in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and also a 25-game winner, got picked off by No. 4 seed Fairfield on Sunday afternoon, 85-75. One bad day at the end of a wonderful season will likely send Iona to the NIT.
But for every heartbreaking story this month, there seems to be a heartwarmer as well. Stony Brook, the America East regular season champs, looking to make the Big Dance for the very first time in school history, was tied with No. 4 seed Albany in the final seconds of their game Sunday afternoon. That’s when forward Dallis Joyner tipped in a rebound at the buzzer to send the Seawolves within one victory of their first-ever bid.
Stony Brook will host the America East championship game, next Saturday at 11 a.m.
Iona and Wagner got more attention this season -- Iona because of its NBA prospects, Wagner because of its coach’s last name.
But LIU Brooklyn and Stony Brook are the two locals left standing.
Are we in for more heartwarming? Or more heartbreak?
Tune in Wednesday night, and Saturday morning.