NEW BRITAIN - The lead was as big as 12 with six minutes left in the game for the CCSU men’s basketball team in its game against LIU Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon. Then the Blackbirds cut the lead down to three with more than two minutes left.
The Blue Devils have been giving up halftime leads all season and seemed primed to do the same this time. That ended up not being the case on this occasion though.
CCSU made some big plays down the stretch and knocked down enough free throws to win for the second time in three games, 61-52.
“I think we finally executed down the stretch for the first time in a while,” CCSU head coach Donnell Marshall said. “We had guys stepping up and making big plays. Tidell [Pierre] had a huge rebound at the end and it was just good to see the end of the game go that way.”
The Blue Devils were able to salt away the game largely because of Austin Nehls’ work at the free throw line. The sophomore guard made nine of his 10 free throws in the game, while the rest of the team made just 4 of 17.
The charity stripe has been an issue for CCSU all season, but the team at least has that one guy they know will knock them down when it matters.
“I was yelling at the team to get the ball to Austin when they were trying to foul,” Marshall said. “Everyone else on the team isn’t confident from the line right now, even though we practice it. Austin goes up there and knows the next one is going in.”
“It’s all about confidence,” Nehls said. “The rest of the guys on the team don’t want to get fouled. Their shooting form is fine, they just need to step up there and be confident that they are going to make it.”
Nehls entered the contest against LIU Brooklyn coming off of an 0-10 shooting performance in Thursday night’s loss to Bryant. The sharpshooter missed his first three shots in this one, too, but kept shooting and eventually found his stroke, which was much needed for the Blue Devils.
“My teammates and coaches just told me to keep shooting,” said Nehls, who had a game-high 20 points on 4-for-11 shooting from the field and 3-for-7 shooting from three. “Last game was the first game all season that I didn’t hit a three. I went into the gym the other night and saw a few go in, so that was a big help.”
“I yell at Austin more for not shooting than I do when he takes bad shots,” Marshall said. “He is too good of a shooter to not shoot when he is open and be confident about it. I knew that slump wasn’t going to last very long.”
After being down eight at halftime, LIU Brooklyn closed the gap to four early in the second half, but a layup by Batiste and a three-pointer by Nehls extended the lead right back to nine points seven minutes in.
The Blackbirds cut into the lead again, making the deficit just four, but CCSU once again responded. Nehls nailed another three-pointer and then, off of a steal, Khalen Cumberlander made a transition layup while being fouled. He missed the free throw, but the Blue Devils still had a nine point lead halfway through the second.
LIU Brooklyn jumped out to a quick 12-5 lead and did so with transition offense. Marshall called a quick timeout as he was visibly upset with the team’s ability to get back on defense. CCSU responded out of the timeout with an 8-0 run which gave it the lead. Austin Nehls knocked down four free throws during the run.
Offense was hard to come by for both sides in the first half, as neither team shot the ball particularly well and there were a lot of turnovers committed. LIU Brooklyn shot 32 percent in the first half and turned it over 11 times, while CCSU shot 41 percent with eight turnovers but made just four of nine free-throw attempts.
The Blue Devils did have a flurry at the end of the half, though. A mini 6-0 run, which was started by a Mustafa Jones dunk and was capped by a Kevin Seymour layup, gave the team a 27-19 lead entering the break.