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Robert Morris hits late basket, upsets LIU Brooklyn in NEC quarterfinals

| Wednesday, March 1, 2017, 11:27 p.m.

BROOKLYN — It was 6:58 p.m. Wednesday, and one at a time, the Robert Morris men's basketball players stepped off their bus outside the Steinberg Wellness Center with determined looks.

The Colonials were serious. Rightfully so. Their season was on the line in this small gym, tucked into a major Brooklyn artery. They could advance to the Northeast Conference semifinals with a win. A loss ended their season.

Four hours and a few scant minutes later, the seventh-seeded Colonials screamed and yelled after they upset second-seeded LIU Brooklyn, 69-68.

“It was a great basketball game,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said. “I'm very, very proud of their performance.”

The Colonials (14-18) will play top-seeded Mount St. Mary's on Saturday, and Wagner and St. Francis (Pa.) will meet in the other semifinal.

Robert Morris' Matty McConnell led all scorers with 20 points. Isaiah Still finished with 19, and Kavon Stewart had 11, including the winning runner with three seconds left.

“I made a play,” Stewart said. “(It's) a (shot) I take in practice (and) make in practice.”

The teams split the regular-season series, each winning on the other's court. Robert Morris dropped a 65-54 decision Jan. 5 at Sewall Center but returned the favor with a 67-63 win Feb. 2 at Steinberg Wellness Center.

“They're a very tough team,” LIU coach Jack Perri said. “They figured it out. … They're a good basketball team with great coaching.”

The rubber match began promisingly enough for the Colonials, who led for the first 13:35 thanks to McConnell's 3-point shooting. He knocked down four 3s in the stretch that saw the Colonials lead by as many as nine.

McConnell hit 6 of 9 3s.

“I just rose up and made some shots,” McConnell said.

Despite the positive start, there were negatives. No other Colonial made a 3 in the first half, and Aaron Tate and Braden Burke were the only other Colonials to make a shot from the field. The Colonials missed four layups. And the Blackbirds were getting to the paint and grabbing rebounds with impunity.

Added together, it equaled LIU (20-12) holding a 27-26 lead at the half, even if Robert Morris essentially relegated NEC Player of the Year Jerome Frink to a nonfactor (six points, four rebounds and an assist in the first half; 10 points, seven rebounds for the game).

“They wore us down a little bit at the end of the first half,” Toole said. “I told them (during) halftime, ‘They can't break us. We've got to be stronger mentally. We've got to be stronger physically. We have to do whatever it takes to come up with a victory.' ”

The second half picked up where the first half ended. At the first media timeout of the half, Robert Morris trailed 38-31. By the second media timeout, 9:48 later, the deficit was 56-54. Following the stoppage in play, Dachon Burke's layup tied the game. And McConnell's sixth 3 allowed Robert Morris to regain the lead 61-60.

LIU counterpunched with two Jashaun Agosto layups to open a 64-61 advantage. Agosto led the Blackbirds with 16. The Colonials twice sliced the lead to one, sandwiching McConnell and Still layups around LIU big man Nura Zanna's tip-in.

“I think they got a little frustrated,” McConnell said. “Inch by inch, we got back into the game and I think we frustrated them.”

Robert Morris went ahead 67-66 after McConnell stripped Agosto and set up Burke for a layup. But after Frink missed the second of two free throws, Still fouled Raiquan Clark. Clark made both free throws to give LIU a 68-67 lead with 12.9 seconds left.

After Stewart's floating runner with three seconds left put Robert Morris ahead, Frink froze after the ensuing inbounds pass and did not get a halfcourt heave off before the buzzer sounded. According to Frink and Perri, the Colonials took away LIU Brooklyn's primary ball-handler and he was forced to bring the ball up court.

Denis P. Gorman is a freelance writer.

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