As a freshman Kenny Onyechi started all 31 of LIU Brooklyn’s games and was named to the NEC All-Rookie Team. He played 25.7 minutes per game that season and averaged 8.1 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Then Julian Boyd came back healthy and Onyechi headed to the bench, but that all-league talent is still there.
Onyechi proved it in LIU’s 95-80 win over Central Connecticut on Saturday with seven points and 13 rebounds. His play in the interior helped LIU out-rebound CCSU 44-26 and move to 17-7 overall and 11-1 in the NEC.
“You’re really bringing off someone that could be starting on other teams,” said LIU head coach Jim Ferry about Onyechi. “It just makes us tremendously deep in the front court. And if you can have that confidence you’re going to give yourself a chance to win.”
The junior from Sugar Land, Texas played the second most minutes of the season against the Blue Devils because both Boyd and Jamal Olasewere got into a bit of foul trouble in an emotional game with CCSU.
But even with those two on the bench LIU was able to keep CCSU at bay thanks to play of Onyechi and Booker Hucks. With 17:40 remaining in the game Central Connecticut was threatening to get back into down just eight as Boyd picked up a technical foul, his third personal. Onyechi came in and immediately filled the void. When he exited LIU held a 16-point lead with 11:56 to play.
The Blackbirds would eventually build the lead up to as many as 24 before cruising home for the 15-point victory. LIU got 19 points off the bench compared to 12 for CCSU, but the bigger story was that the Blackbirds were able to play without some of their key players in the game.
CCSU on the other hand couldn’t. LIU made a conscious decision to take high-scoring freshman guard Kyle Vinales out of the game. He struggled shooting 3-13 from the field and scoring eight points. While Ken Horton scored 29 points and grabbed 10 board and Robby Ptacek added 24, the lack of another scoring option just left the Blue Devils with too little horsepower to keep up with LIU’s high-flying attack.
“I thought we did a very good job of taking Vinales away,” Ferry said. “They have three guys that take most of their shots. I thought we did a good job of taking at least one of them away.”
Onyechi was a big part of it, but Brandon Thompson and Hucks also gave Ferry solid minutes off the bench. Thompson scored five points and played solid defense along the perimeter.
While this team certainly doesn’t have the depth that last season’s team had when Kyle Johnson and David Hicks were in the lineup, there’s a ton of talent and still more depth than almost every other team in the NEC.
The one question might be at point guard. Whereas Jason Brickman used to come off the bench to spell Hicks last season, it’s now his team. The sophomore point guard played 35 minutes against CCSU and scored 14 points. He also had seven assists and four turnovers. The Blue Devils gave Brickman open driving lanes and he took advantage of them, getting to the hoop for layups.
“I can’t tell you how much I smiled today just on his passes,” Ferry said about Brickman. “I try to not let people see me, but it’s like ‘Wow, how about that.’”
LIU also continues to be deadly at the free throw line. The Blackbirds shot 29-31 (93.5%) there and it is an invaluable source of points and strategic foul trouble against the opposition. Horton scored 29 points partly because he was only able to play 27 minutes due to foul problems.
Wednesday the Blackbirds take their game to Madison Square Garden where the Battle of Brooklyn week commences with the first of two games against St. Francis (NY), which stayed in a tie for second with a convincing 80-67 win over Bryant. Onyechi and the rest of the Blackbirds’ bench better ready, because LIU will need all hands on deck if it wants to stay on top.