FanPost

NCAA Roundball Dreams Come Full Circle For LIU Blackbirds And Connie James

Conniejames_mediumConnie James came to Long Island University four years ago fresh off of back-to-back girl's basketball state championships at Absegami High School. Ranked the top defender in New Jersey by the the Newark-Star Ledger, the Blackbirds hoped James' winning ways would help a talented team on the rise. Four years later, those predictions appeared to have been right on target as LIU hosts St. Francis (PA) in the Northeast Conference Championship Game tomorrow at 3pm on ESPNU.

"They probably figured I understood what it takes to win games," James said about being recruited to LIU. "The challenge is knowing that every game can be different."

In her freshman season, James made an immediate impact, starting 20 of 31 games as the Blackbirds recorded their first 20-win season in program history. LIU headed into the 2007 NEC Tournament as the top seed, another first. But a stunning, opening-round home loss to the eighth seed ended the NCAA tournament dream for James in her freshman season. And it was easy for most to overlook James' contributions, since classmate Valerie Nainima garnered every award the NEC had to offer.

A 24-8 record made it two 20-plus seasons in a row for the Blackbirds. In her sophomore season, James played in every game - starting all but one. Back-to-back 48 percent field goal shooting seasons for James paled in comparison to her 100-plus assist and rebounding efforts. The fourth-seeded Blackbirds hosted the first two rounds of the 2008 NEC Tournament. After winning the first two games, LIU headed to Pennsylvania for their first NEC Championship Game under head coach Stephanie Gaitley. The Blackbirds lost to Robert Morris 86-75 to end the season and end James' NCAA tournament dream for a second-straight year.

The borough of Brooklyn invented the term "Wait Until Next Year". But on LIU's campus, things didn't look that optimistic shortly after the season ended. As four key seniors prepared to graduate, Gaitley then Nainima also departed. With a new coaching staff and new teammates all around, it would have been easy for Connie James to give up as a rebuilding effort began around her. Despite a 9-20 NEC tournament-less junior season, James posted another 100-plus rebound and assist effort. And teammate Ashley Palmer became the second Blackbird in the James' era to garner NEC All-Rookie and the All-Conference Team accolades. There was hope, despite a ninth place NEC Preseason Coaches Poll prediction for the 2009-10 season. "The newcomers fit right in," James stated earlier this year. "This year, it felt really good."

What the NEC coaches failed to predict was that Blackbirds second-year head coach Gail Striegler could crunch a "rebuilding" plan into less than two seasons. LIU breezed through the regular season with a 20-9 record, earning the second seed for the 2010 NEC Tournament. Two wins later, they find themselves hosting the NEC Championship Game. And James' efforts might be the most unheralded of all.

James will end her career at Long Island University as a 1,000 point scorer and second all-time in assists. The 5'8" guard will also end her career ninth place all-time in program history with 705-plus rebounds. Although she will  finish her career without any All-Conference or Player of the Year awards, James is the only player to be a part of all three 20-win seasons in LIU history. A NCAA Tournament appearance would be the most fitting reward of all.

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