by Dan Gardella
Bridgeport, CT – The saying “There’s no place like home” tends to often remain true. It’s always special to come home and, especially in sports. The phrase applied to LIU Brooklyn players Raiquan Clark and Ty Flowers, both residents of Connecticut.
The two combined for 56 points, none bigger than the final two by Clark with 1.3 seconds to play to propel LIU Brooklyn to the 89-87 victory over the Fairfield Stags Tuesday night.
From the get-go, it was apparent that there were no nerves from the two making their respective homecomings.
“At first, I was a little nervous being back home,” Clark said. “But once we scored the first basket, it was easy.”
“I played here once time during my senior year in high school,” Flowers said. “I didn’t do too well, but luckily today I did. It’s fun coming back to your hometown, state, all of that.”
Clark, a resident of New Haven, Connecticut and a product of Hillhouse High School scored 20 of his season-high 33 points in the final 20 minutes.
Flowers, from Waterbury, Connecticut and a product of prestigious Sacred Heart High School poured in a career-high 23 points, 21 of which coming in the first half.
LIU Brooklyn threw the first punch in the game by scoring the first five points, courtesy of a Flowers three pointer and a layup by Jashaun Agosto. Fairfield would score the next five to tie it up but would never be able to grab the lead.
The Blackbirds then created some space between them and the Stags. Following the tie, LIU Brooklyn went on a 12-5 run, with all 12 points coming from the hometown kids. Fairfield would cut the deficit to as little as one early on but the Blackbirds responded, stretching it back out to 12, the largest of the first half.
“I was really disappointed with our start. I thought that they came out, they hit us,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “I thought on our home floor, home opener, we would play solid basketball. We just didn’t compete. We got outplayed early.”.
Although the Stags were unable to get a lead in the opening half, they fought and did everything they could to stick around, only trailing by four, 47-43, at the halftime break.
Within the first 30 seconds of play in the second half, Fairfield had the deficit down to three after Landon Taliaferro sank one of his five three pointers on the night to make it 49-46.
But the experienced LIU Brooklyn group would run away, going on an 8-0 run over the next two and a half minutes to put Fairfield in a 13 point hole, the largest deficit of the ballgame.
The Stags however, would not break. While the lead never got to within a single possession for the following seven minutes, Fairfield would refuse to let LIU Brooklyn put the game out of reach.
During those crucial seven minutes, it was the combination of Matija Milin, Jesus Cruz, and Landon Taliaferro who carried the scoring load to eventually cut the LIU Brooklyn lead to one with nine and a half minutes to play.
“There is something about this group that I like,” said Johnson. “They are coachable, there is versatility. They are trying to do what we need them to do. I would love to get a lot of games under these guys’ belts because I think this was a winnable game against a very good team and I think their poise showed.”
Though poised, they still were unable to make the play that would have them take their first lead of the game. The Blackbirds, who represented the Northeast Conference (NEC) in the NCAA Tournament a season ago, responded with another 8-0 run to give them a nine point lead with six minutes to play.
With the lead getting as much as nine with five minutes to go, Fairfield would keep grinding away and once again were on the doorstep of a lead following another Taliaferro three to make it 84-83 with 2:35 to play. The Stags would force a turnover on the following Blackbird possession and were a basket away from overcoming multiple double digit deficits.
It was the senior leader, Jonathan Kasibabu who managed to use his 6’9, 240 pound frame to get inside and convert from the paint along with drawing a foul to give Fairfield their first lead, 85-83 with 1:46 to go.
If you haven’t learned yet, LIU Brooklyn would respond.
Junior guard Julian Batts would draw a foul on the following drive down the court but only managed to make one of two free throws, allowing the Stags to keep their lead.
Fairfield would have a chance to extend the lead or even put the game out of reach but failed to get a shot off. Rather, they allowed a shot clock violation to give LIU Brooklyn a chance.
They would not miss that chance.
Clark would get the feed from Agosto on the right wing and knock down a big three pointer to give LIU Brooklyn an 87-85 lead with 37 seconds to play.
Fairfield, in response, would turn to their clutch freshman Neftali Alvarez, who scored the game-winning layup against Bucknell just days earlier. The guard would slice his way through the defense and finish the layup on the right side to knot the score at 87.
But Clark, who had around 25 friends and family members in the stands, would create an unforgettable memory for them, and one that would haunt Fairfield and its fans.
He would get the ball with six seconds remaining and proceed to drive to the right against Kasibabu, step back and sink a long two to give the Blackbirds an 89-87 lead.
“I was looking for the open shot, a good shot. We got the best shot we could’ve gotten,” said Clark.
Fairfield would have one last shot, but Alvarez’s three from near half-court would hit off of the backboard, sealing the third straight win for Derek Kellogg’s group.
“I thought we showed some spurts where we looked like a good college basketball team. Offensively, we were really clicking,” said Kellogg. “Fairfield, the way they are coached and how tough and physical their guys are, they were going to make a couple of runs. I thought it was going to come down to the last couple of minutes. We were fortunate to get some big plays from Raiquan (Clark) down the stretch to give us the win.”
Following the heartbreaking loss, Fairfield turns around and welcomes in the regular season champions from the NEC, Wagner to Webster Bank Arena Saturday afternoon in hopes to get back on track.
“We need to play two halves of good basketball to beat teams,” said Johnson.