James Johnson steps up in win over LIU [Slideshow]

Lenny Neslin

Photo credits: Andrew Vazzano

The Quinnipiac men’s basketball team’s 80-72 win over Long Island on Saturday kept the Bobcats undefeated at the TD Bank Sports Center this season and still just one game behind Northeast Conference leader Robert Morris. The win also gave Quinnipiac a bid to the NEC Tournament for the fifth straight year.

Sophomore guard James Johnson led the Bobcats with a career-high 23 points on Senior Day, which honored guards Sean Light and Steve Robinson, forwards Jeremy Baker, Jonathan Cruz and James Feldeine, and team manager Steve Elfenbein before the game in front of 2,836 fans – the largest crowd of the season.

“We need these grinder games instead of just blowouts to get us tougher down the road,” Johnson said. “It’s always better to win ugly than to lose ugly.

“Rutty always draws a double team, so it’s thanks to Rutty that he draws so much attention on offense to leave me open.”

Third-place Long Island showed off its athleticism down low by blocking five shots and becoming the first team to out-rebound Quinnipiac (39-38) this season.

“LIU is a hungry, offensive-rebounding team,” Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore said. “Thirteen offensive rebounds in the second half is unheard of against us. It’s a statement to what we did real poorly today, which was boxing out.

“This team (QU) continues to be very pragmatic, finding ways to win games.”

Johnson was given a tough assignment on the defensive end with senior guard Jaytornah Wisseh, LIU’s leading scorer. Wisseh finished with 22 points, but Moore was pleased with Johnson’s efforts.

“That’s hard to do for a sophomore, but he was up for it,” Moore said of guarding Wisseh. “[Johnson’s] a tough kid and he’s having a great sophomore year.”

Johnson scored 15 of his points in a second half that Quinnipiac shot 57.7 percent from the field. Baker, who Moore calls the team’s emotional, spiritual and toughness leader, recognized the impact Johnson made in the win.

“He was thrown a lot of weight on his shoulders as a freshman, and he responded the right way. That’s the same thing he is doing this year,” Baker said. “In stretches where we weren’t playing offense to our ability, he hit some clutch shots to help us get over that hump.”

Feldeine, Quininpiac’s leading scorer, followed up one of his worst games of the year on Thursday with 17 points and eight rebounds despite being defended against a very physical David Hicks.

“He stepped up to the challenge, but I don’t think he really played me that tough offensively,” Feldeine said. “I did what I wanted to do, just some shots didn’t go down.”

A layup by junior forward Justin Rutty late in the first half gave Quinnipiac a 32-31 lead they would not relinquish. The Bobcats went up by as many as 10 with 9:42 remaining in the game, but the Blackbirds kept it a two-possession game up until the final minute of play.

If Quinnipiac beats St. Francis (Pa.) on Thursday, or if Mount St. Mary’s, Long Island or Fairleigh Dickinson lose, the Bobcats will secure a home game in the NEC Tournament.

“We’re hoping that we can host three games in the NEC Tournament,” Moore said. “As it stands, if we win the first game, we would host two.”

Moore and the rest of the team went over to the student section after the game to thank them for their continued support.

“Nothing beats the feeling that people are seeing your efforts and want to come and support and cheer you on,” Moore said. “It’s nice for people react to us having a good season.”

“I honestly don’t think they understand how important they are,” Baker said. “The fans, that’s college basketball, in a nutshell.”

Baker, a transfer from Garden City Community College after his freshman year, didn’t play all of the 2007-08 season and missed 17 games last year with an injury. Baker has missed just one game this year and now he is filled with confidence.

“We feel like anybody that steps on the court, we’re going to beat them,” Baker said. “That has to do with us being deep, and playing against each other hard in practice.”