On the surface it might’ve seemed like a daunting task. Wagner hadn’t beaten LIU in its last four tries. The Blackbirds hadn’t lost in 31 straight games at the Wellness Center. LIU was the defending NEC champion.
Underneath there were cracks. While LIU got a few players back from suspension after a 0-2 weekend to start NEC play, they were still without star forward Julian Boyd. The Blackbirds hadn’t won a game since blowing out Manhattan in mid-December.
But Wagner also had some issues. The Seahawks’ star forward Jonathan Williams missed his second straight game. Key reserve Marcus Burton was on crutches.
It didn’t matter. Wagner came into LIU’s gym and delivered a resounding 86-75 answer to which team is the one to beat in the NEC this season. The Seahawks are now on a four-game winning streak and 3-0 in conference.
“It’s definitely a stepping stone for us, because since I’ve been here we haven’t beat them,” said Wagner junior Latif Rivers. “To be able to come in on the road and beat a good team, that’s really good at home is definitely big for us.”
It was the most points that Wagner had scored all season. The Seahawks’ previous high was 77 in an overtime win over Coppin State, that was the only time previously Bashir Mason’s defensively oriented club had cracked 70 all season.
Point guard Kenneth Ortiz dominated the game. Last season’s NEC Defensive Player of the Year had four steals, but it was his offense that was most impressive against LIU. Ortiz scored 19 points on just seven shots from the field and had 11 assists. For all 38 minutes he was on the court Ortiz was a maestro, perfectly conducting the Wagner offense.
“As a guard I just wanted to control the game,” Ortiz said. “That’s what coach kept on telling me. I know as they made a run I had to slow it down and we had to be smart in our possessions.”
Everyone got involved. The Seahawks shot 9-10 from three in the game. Latif Rivers went a perfect 4-4 from beyond the arc and scored a team-high 20 points. Mario Moody used his athleticism to dominate around the rim and added a career-high 19 points and nine rebounds. Glue guy Josh Thompson added scored nine points on 2-3 shooting.
“He’s been a saving grace,” said Mason about Moody. “My biggest worry going into the game knowing how [Jamal] Olasewere plays was Mario picking up two fouls early and then trying to figure out how we’d get this scoring, but he did a good job not fouling.”
Instead it was Olasewere that got in foul trouble. Wagner trailed 29-25 when Olasewere picked up his second foul with 5:34 to play in the first half. From there the Seahawks went on a 17-2 run to take an 11-point lead into half.
“It was a silly second foul,” said LIU head coach Jack Perri. “He’s struggling controlling himself. He got the second foul and we didn’t step up. We’ve been very consistently inconsistent the last four minutes of every half.”
When Olasewere returned he was pressing and frustrated. While he scored 16 points, it took 14 shots and he fouled out after picking up a technical with 6:43 remaining.
Earlier Perri had picked up a technical of his own. Whether the water bottle he tossed really merited it is debatable, but his frustration with his team, and especially the defense, was apparent afterwards.
“Everybody plays well against us offensively, we’re not a very good defensive team,” Perri said. “We harp on it every single day and it’s not sinking in.”
The defensive breakdowns aren’t because Boyd is out either. Ortiz managed to consistently break Jason Brickman down off the dribble. As Ortiz got into the paint he had opportunities to find open guys both below him on the block and above the three point line. Too often the Blackbirds got caught coming to help. Rivers’ shooting display was a perfect example. How a player of his caliber could get three open looks (the fourth was falling over) from three is incomprehensible.
Perri will have to figure out how to fix those problems before the Blackbirds take on Mount St. Mary’s on Saturday at the Barclays Center. Wagner heads home to take on St. Francis Brooklyn. As Thursday night showed, these two teams are moving in two very different directions.
For a full look at all of Thursday’s NEC action be sure to read Ryan’s recap!