The Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center in Brooklyn, NY is not big at all. When empty, it does not look like the home of a Division-I Conference Champion. It’s small, narrow, and very bright. It looks more like a state-of-the-art intramural gym than anything else. But when you stuff 1,700 frenzied LIU-Brooklyn fans inside a gym the size of a squash court, it makes for an environment unlike anything else in college basketball.
With a NCAA Tournament birth on the line, the atmosphere on Wednesday night for the NEC Tournament Championship game between the Blackbirds and Robert Morris University had all the characteristics of a “One Night Only” rock concert. The crowd noise was in a constant state of high-pitched chaos. Flash-bulbs went off every five seconds. fans were practicially spilling out of the bleachers. At halftime, fans had to be corralled by police officers because so many people were trying to get near Spike Lee.
Yup, Spike Lee was there.
That should give you a good idea as to the type of home-court advantage the Blackbirds were dealing with. “We needed them, definitely,” said NEC Tournament Julian Boyd, who finished with 18 points and ten rebounds. “If we didn’t have them tonight, we wouldn’t have won by as much as we did, we may not have even won. It was fantastic, I love playing in front of crowds like that.”
Boyd’s play was driven by the fans. When C.J. Garner found him for a half-court alley-oop, the sell-out crowd erupted into a frenzy. Boyd cracked a smile as bright as the flash-bulbs, and back-peddled down the court urging the fans to get even louder.
“With an atmosphere like that, you want to have fun,” Jamal Olasawere said, clutching the NEC Tournament trophy with both hands. “You know, with the way we play, why can’t you have fun going up and down like that, catching oops and dunking the ball? Especially with a crowd like that. we’re truly blessed to have fans who will come out and bring it like that.”
But the fans didn’t always bring it like that. Just a year ago, the Blackbirds were the hunters, trying to dethrone a Robert Morris team that had won back-to-back NEC Tournament championships. The two teams met in the same gym with the same prize at stake. Long Island prevailed in overtime 85-83, and the culture surrounding the program shifted.
“Last year was the beginning of something great. They started to support us more and more after every game. I mean, after the year we had, how can they not support something like that?” If Spike Lee is attending your basketball games, you know you’ve accomplished something special.
With two consecutive NEC Tournament titles, the Blackbirds are now the team to beat in the NEC. But that’s something opposing teams can play for next year. As for now, they have a NCAA Tournament win to get.
“Last year we got the experience of just getting to the NCAA Tournament,” Boyd said. “But this time, we can go in focused at the task at hand and get the job done.”
Troy Machir is the managing editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @TroyMachir.