NEW YORK – LIU Brooklyn’s two best players raised their game. Wagner couldn’t buy a basket. And the Blackbirds are NCAA Tournament-bound after shocking their New York City rival.
Joel Hernandez had 32 points and seven rebounds, Raiquan Clark had 20 points and eight rebounds and LIU Brooklyn beat Wagner 71-61 on Tuesday night to win the Northeast Conference Tournament title and earn its first NCAA Tournament bid in five years.
The fourth-seeded Blackbirds (18-16) handed top-seeded Wagner (23-9) its first loss this season on its Staten Island campus as the Seahawks struggled from the field all night, shooting 30 percent.
“We couldn’t throw a ball in the ocean,” Wagner coach Bashir Mason said. “I thought my guys battled. They played extremely hard and to the game plan. You have to give LIU Brooklyn a lot of credit. They prepared. Their two best players stepped up. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but I told our guys this is something that’s going to help us get better. We’ll learn from this, grow from this and get better from this moment.”
Romone Saunders had 17 points and Devin Liggeons had 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Seahawks.
LIU Brooklyn never trailed after Hernandez converted a three-point play with 12:05 left in the first half, and the Blackbirds went on a 15-2 run to take a 34-19 lead into halftime.
“I thought he put us on his back in the first half,” first-year LIU Brooklyn coach Derek Kellog said of Hernendez. “I thought he gave us a nice cushion that we needed, and then every time Wagner made a run he came up with a big basket or a big play. I told him all along that’s what a fifth-year senior is supposed to do if he wants to elongate his career and give himself an opportunity to play at the highest level in the NCAA Tournament.”
Wagner cut the deficit to seven three times in the final six minutes, the last time with 59 seconds left, but the Seahawks didn’t score again.
Hernandez made two free throws with 38 seconds left to seal it as “MVP” chants rained down from the LIU Brooklyn fans. He was officially named the tournament MVP after the game, and he gets to play at least one more time.
“I was thinking about that, especially coming into the game,” Hernandez said. “I wanted to make sure I played my hardest and I left everything out on the floor. Even if we lost, I didn’t want to have any regrets after the game, so I just wanted to make sure I played hard for my brothers on the court and I feel like I did that.”
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