BROOKLYN — The Long Island University men’s basketball team sat at LaGuardia Airport Monday longer than expected thanks to a delayed flight to Dayton, Ohio.
It was nothing compared to the bumpy road the Blackbirds endured en route to a third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
On Wednesday night at UD Arena, LIU (20-13) will take on James Madison in the First Four, with the winner meeting East Region top-seed Indiana Friday afternoon.
A trip to the Big Dance appeared highly unlikely only a few months ago as the Blackbirds grappled with on and off the court strife.
“All of the adversity we hit, for them to do what they did after all of that, shows great character and I’m so proud of what they’ve accomplished,” LIU first-year coach Jack Perri said at a press conference Tuesday in Dayton. “It’s an amazing feat. Having dealt with all that we’ve dealt with, this is definitely the sweetest out of the three.”
Perri, who spent seven years as an LIU assistant, was named head coach in April after former coach Jim Ferry left for Duquesne. Expectations were sky high for the senior-laden squad that returned virtually everyone from a team that won back-to-back Northeast Conference championships.
“When I got the job, I talked about doing this and being the best ever,” Perri said. “That’s what we called it, ‘The Best Ever.’ That was our goal.”
But in September, four players — Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere, Troy Joseph and C.J. Garner — were arrested and charged with third-degree assault as a result of an on-campus brawl.
The four were also suspended from school, but LIU provost Gale Stevens Haynes lifted the suspensions in October. However, they were each forced to sit out the first two conference games.
Boyd, a 6-foot-7 forward who was the reigning NEC Player of the Year, then suffered a season-ending injury in December, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in a game against Rice.
What followed, after a 75-48 win over Manhattan four days later, was a six-game losing streak, including an 0-3 start in conference play.
It was 10 days into the New Year and the LIU season had reached a crossroads.
“When Julian went down, it took some time for us to adjust to find our new identity,” said Garner, a senior guard.
But with the 6-foot-7 Olasewere, who averages 18.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, leading the way, the Blackbirds won 10 of their next 11 games. The squad once again found some March magic, beating Quinnipiac, Wagner and Mount St. Mary’s in the NEC tournament.
Olasewere was named NEC Player of the Year and Garner garnered NEC tournament MVP after scoring a career-high 31 points in the final.
A big part of the team’s inspiration this season has come from 8-year-old Londell Francis, an honorary member of the team who is battling sickle cell anemia. The Brooklyn native was diagnosed with the blood disorder when he was 2 days old.
“He’s got this great enthusiasm for life and all that he deals with. We talk to our guys about that,” Perri said. “I think it humbles our guys and they feel really good that they can have this impact on an 8-year-old.”
Despite all the obstacles, LIU is back in the NCAA tournament and is looking for the program’s first-ever tournament win Wednesday against James Madison. The Blackbirds, 0-5 all-time in the NCAA tournament, are hoping the experience of being on the big stage before will be an advantage against the Colonial Athletic Association champions.
“Everything we’ve been through, the suspensions, your player of the year goes down, it could’ve gone either way,” Olasewere said. “We came together when we had to. They wrote us off and we did what we had to do and we made history.”