“The rest of the team just kind of sits back with their heads held on the side and a smile on their face like, Would you idiots just shut up?” an amused Long Island Coach Jim Ferry said.
One thing Olasewere, a 6-foot-7 forward, and Garner, a 5-10 guard, can agree on: They’re a rarity, two guys from the same public high school starting in the same Division I lineup in the NCAA tournament.
Fifteenth seed LIU (27-5), riding a nation-best 13-game winning streak, will make its first tournament appearance since 1997 against East Region second seed North Carolina (26-7) at 7:15 p.m. Friday in Charlotte.
Olasewere and Garner were a dynamic tandem on the 2008 Springbrook team that won the Maryland 4A championship. Garner went off to South Alabama and started 16 games as a freshman but decided to transfer in part because his playing time dwindled late in the season.
Olasewere, a year younger, at that point had committed to LIU after leading Springbrook to a 27-0 season and another state title (he is quick to remind Garner that he won one without him).
Olasewere suggested to Garner, and to the Blackbirds’ coaching staff, that Garner would be a good fit at LIU.
The Blackbirds play in Brooklyn. Garner, a second-team All-Met in 2008, already considered Brooklyn a second home because his mother is from there.
So he sat out last year and this season helped the Blackbirds win the Northeast Conference regular season and tournament titles.
“Me and CJ have always been a one-two punch,” said Olasewere, a first-team All-Met in 2009. “It’s a miracle that we’re here together. I didn’t think much of it before, but it’s crazy, ending up on the same college team. We definitely have a connection on the court carried over from high school. We know how to play together.”
Garner and Olasewere combined for 40 points in the 2008 state championship, a game Springbrook trailed by 18 with less than two minutes left in the third quarter before rallying to beat Thomas Stone, 61-57, at Comcast Center.
They were equally effective this month in the NEC final, played in front of a capacity crowd in the Blackbirds’ home gym. Olasewere scored seven of his career-high 31 points in overtime and also had 11 rebounds and 4 steals in an 85-82 win over two-time defending conference champion Robert Morris. Garner scored 15 points and had three assists and no turnovers.
Springbrook Coach Tom Crowell watched the NEC championship on TV, and he spent so much of the game texting with assistant Darnell Myers and former assistant Kirk Davis that they eventually got on a three-way call so they could watch it together.
“What I remember about them is they always came through in the clutch,” said Crowell, who this season took his team to see Long Island play at Navy. “When you needed it the most, both of them always came through with a steal, big foul shot or big basket. Both of them were always there.”
Ferry has seen much the same at LIU. Olasewere’s double-double helped the Blackbirds pull out a 69-67 NEC semifinal win over Central Connecticut after trailing by 11. He was named tourney MVP. During the regular season, Garner hit a game-winning shot with 0.6 of a second left at St. Francis (N.Y.). He also had 17 points in the second half against St. Francis (Pa).
“We always sit back and say, man, that must have been a heckuva high school team,” Ferry said. “It’s no surprise they won a state championship with the ability these guys have to raise their game to a certain level.”
Beating North Carolina in the NCAAs might be a little more difficult than beating Thomas Stone in the Maryland 4As. The NEC is 0-28 in the NCAA tournament. But the Blackbirds are an intriguing lot.
Their Brooklyn neighborhood is already buzzing. In a bit on his TV program, late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon threw his enthusiastic support behind LIU.
That gesture could very well spur a nuanced discussion between Olasewere and Garner about who the funniest late night host is.
“You can tell with these guys from Day One they could get under each other’s skin with one word and no one else knew what was going on,” said Ferry, who compares the pair’s communication to that of his twin children. “Someone has to have one up on the other all the time. Yet these guys would go to war for each other. It’s a unique part of our team.”