DAYTON, Ohio — In December, LIU Brooklyn lost its best player, Julian Boyd, to a season-ending knee injury.
That could have been the end of the Blackbirds' two-year run as Northeast Conference champions.
Instead of folding, the Blackbirds turned around a season filled with adversity by winning their last five games to win a record third consecutive league tournament title and earn a third straight automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
A season of incredible highs and lows finally came to a halt on Wednesday night when the Blackbirds started slowly, briefly took the lead and then wilted at the end to fall to James Madison 68-55 in the First Four at the University of Dayton Arena.
"In December when you lose Julian Boyd, who would have thought?" coach Jack Perri asked. "Nobody would have thought we'd have gotten to this point. Nobody talked about it. Nobody talked about us."
They entered the conversation late in the season by scoring points – topping 90 in all four of their conference tournament wins – and by sharing the ball.
"What they did shows true character," said Perri, in his first year as head coach since being elevated from assistant. "The intestinal fortitude that they showed through January, February, and into March was just awesome."
James Madison (21-14) was without suspended starter Rayshawn Goins for the first half but built a big lead.
After falling behind by as many as 12 points early, E.J. Reed's two foul shots with 15:02 left gave the Blackbirds (20-14) their first lead of the game.
But after falling behind, JMU found another gear.
The Dukes went on a 9-0 run and then polished off the game by scoring 10 of the last 12.
Jamal Olasewere had 20 points and 10 rebounds and C.J. Garner 16 points for the Blackbirds, who have lost in their first game in each of their six trips to the tournament, including the last three years.
Olasewere gave credit to JMU's defense.
"(Andre Nation) had five blocks as a guard," he said softly, referring to the JMU defensive specialist at guard. "Around the rim, he made me struggle."
A.J. Davis, who started in replace of Goins, had 20 points for JMU. Charles Cooke, who hadn't scored in three of his last four games, added 15 points and Nation added 14 for the Dukes, who were winless in the NCAA tournament since 1983 and hadn't played in the big dance in 19 years.
Goins, JMU's leading scorer (12.7) and rebounder (7.4), was suspended for the first half following a weekend arrest. Police in Harrisonburg, Va., said they were called to break up a party early Sunday morning and Goins was shouting obscenities at them. He was not arrested on site, according to the police, for fear the crowd would "turn riotous."
Perri thought the suspension actually worked against his team and in favor of the Dukes.
"I was a little concerned with them going small," he said. "I didn't like our matchups to start the game because Goins (a wide-body and 6-foot-6) couldn't play. I actually thought that would have helped us if he did play."
Goins looked out of synch when he did play, but did contribute two big baskets in JMU's late run.
The Blackbirds came in trying to duplicate the success of fellow NEC member Robert Morris, which stunned defending national champion Kentucky 59-57 in the opening round of the NIT on Tuesday night.
It was the last game together in an LIU Brooklyn uniform for high school and college teammates Olasewere and Garner.
"We pushed each other to get to the level we're at right now, which is to get back to the tournament, and to be here three times," Garner said. "It (stinks) that we're not going to be able to play together anymore, but I think we've taught each other a lot, and we've both grown from it. I wish him the best. It's just been great."
The Blackbirds opened the season 0-4 and then lost Boyd to a knee injury after eight games.
LIU was held to 36 percent shooting for by JMU (23 percent in the second half) and had difficulty stringing together baskets.
In the end, the Blackbirds just couldn't overcome the Dukes' game-changing runs.
With four senior starters, now it's time for LIU Brooklyn to turn to others to continue its string of NCAA appearances – and maybe win in the elite tournament.
"Yeah, it's going to be difficult," Perri said, adding that he hoped the NCAA would allow Boyd to return for a sixth season. "Guys are going to have to step into new roles. We've made unbelievable progress the last few years, and hopefully we can continue that."
Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/rustymillerap