Better in Brooklyn: Blackbirds’ turnaround season jumpstarts program

Liftoff: Blackbirds senior guard Iverson Fleming has played a big-time role in the team’s turnaround this year, looking to keep the success going in the postseason.
Long Island University Athletics

The Blackbirds have taken flight.

The Long Island University Brooklyn men’s basketball season isn’t out of the woods yet, but the squad has peaked at the right time and is seeking a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2012–13 season.

This team wasn’t always a fine-tuned hoops machine; times were bleak for the Blackbirds in late December — after dropping its fourth straight game on Dec. 29 to fall to 7–7 on the season — and everyone involved knew things had to change.

“That loss we took to Mount St. Mary’s was very upsetting,” Blackbirds guard Iverson Fleming said. “We came in and we knew what we were capable of. We sat down and we starting figuring things out. We started defending better and everything started to flow well.”

Coach Jack Perri decided the loss to Mount St. Mary’s called for reflection. He didn’t flip a locker room table, go on a tirade or call out any player’s effort; he simply held a film session, one that concentrated on defense.

“We beat St. John’s, we beat Northeastern, we beat teams that were supposed to be better than us,” Perri said. “You could see that we had good pieces. For the most part we were defending well. We sat down and said, if we’re going to be any good we need to be elite at rebounding, we need to be elite at defending, and we certainly regrouped.”

The program has grown steadily in the last four seasons. A year after completing a run of three straight conference tournament championships, the 2013–14 Blackbirds were dealt a bad hand. Julian Boyd tore his anterior cruciate ligament for the second time in two years and Nura Zanna tore a tendon in his wrist, leaving the Blackbirds with just seven scholarship players. That season, Long Island University struggled to a 9–20 finish.

“[That] year wasn’t supposed to be a rebuilding year,” Perri said. “We had all this adversity after winning three championships in a row. It was harder to get better in practice because we didn’t have enough guys to go for a full practice. That year was a real mess.”

In the years since that dismal season, the win totals increased, and the Blackbirds received some help. Forward Jerome Frink, returned closer to home, transferring from Florida International University. Frink, a Jersey City, N.J. native, had played for Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony High School, and wasn’t accustomed to struggling on the hardwood. He’s brought that determination to win to Brooklyn.

Losing was “a hard experience, coming from a winning high school program such as St. Anthony,” Frink said. The Long Island University squad “didn’t have everything together. We had to figure out our roles,” he said.

For Fleming, patience was the name of the game. His playing time increased from 12.1 minutes per game in his freshman season to a career-high 31.3 minutes per game, and he’s made good use of the extra court time.

“I knew what I was capable of; I knew that in just a short amount of time I would eventually come out and showcase my talent,” Fleming said. “I worked on my shooting, my ball handling ability and I just tried to keep a mindset to stay aggressive. It’s obviously helped me this season and it’s something I will continue to do as I go on in my career.”

After defeating Wagner College 88–84 in overtime on Feb. 25, the Blackbirds (20–11, 9–6), finished second in league play and notched the program’s first 20-win season since 2012–13. It’s been a turnaround year for Long Island University, but as far as this team is concerned, better days are ahead.

“I would never cut my team short,” Fleming said. “Obviously the goal is to win the (Northeast Conference) championship, but we have to take it one game at a time. We want to be the best and we want to get to the NCAA tournament. We just have to take care of business in our conference.”

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