NEW YORK -- After Robert Morris' 71-64 victory Sunday against Wagner in the Northeast Conference semifinals, Velton Jones was asked about his thoughts on a potential rematch with Long Island.
Tipoff in the other semifinal was still three hours away, and Quinnipiac gave the Blackbirds all they could handle before falling, 78-75.
In the end, though, it seemed as if it was always going to be Robert Morris and Long Island.
"It'd mean a lot," said Jones, a redshirt junior guard. "They beat us last year at their place. It'd be a fun experience to be able to go back there."
- Matchup: Robert Morris (24-9) vs. Long Island (24-8), 7 p.m. today, Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center, Brooklyn, N.Y. NEC championship.
- TV, radio, Internet: ESPN2, WPIT-AM (730), rmucolonials.com.
- Robert Morris: Beat Wagner, 71-64, in NEC semifinals. ... Third team to appear in four consecutive NEC title games. ... Velton Jones is averaging 19.8 ppg in his past five tournament games, dating to last season. ... Beat Long Island, 75-66, Jan. 26 at Robert Morris.
- Long Island: Beat fifth-seeded Quinnipiac, 78-75, in semifinals. ... Looking to be fourth NEC program to win back-to-back conference titles. ... Has second-longest active home winning streak in the NCAA at 26 in a row.
- Hidden stat: Long Island ranks first in the NEC in scoring offense (81.6 ppg). Robert Morris leads the league in scoring defense (63.0 ppg).
Long Island won the NEC championship game in overtime last year against Robert Morris, a fact Jones and his teammates certainly haven't forgotten. The Blackbirds denied the Colonials a chance at their third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
The two will meet again at 7 p.m. today on ESPN2 at Long Island's Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center with the NEC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line.
Coming into the season, the two teams were picked to finish one-two in the NEC standings, Long Island first, Robert Morris second. Wagner and Quinnipiac made noise in the regular season, but experience matters in the playoffs, and the Colonials and Blackbirds have it.
"I know our guys are excited to compete for a championship," Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said. "I know that, having been here last year and playing against a really good LIU team, they have an idea of how difficult it's going to be to win the game."
It didn't always look as if Robert Morris (24-9) would make it to this point. While Long Island cruised to its second consecutive 16-2 conference season and regular-season title, the Colonials tripped a bit.
After a strong start -- the Colonials became the first Robert Morris team to win 10 games before Christmas -- the team stumbled at the end of January, going 4-4 in NEC games. Toole said the team had started to get away from its tough defensive identity. But they closed the season winning six of seven and seem to be back to playing the hard-nosed style that has defined them the past five years.
"I think guys have started to understand again what they need to do for us to be successful, and I think guys have accepted that," Toole said. "That's how you start to play your best when, not only do people have defined roles, but they try to embrace those roles and excel in those roles."
Even in their rough stretch, a highlight came Jan. 26 when the Colonials beat Long Island, 75-66, at Sewall Center. It was the Blackbirds' only NEC loss until the final day of the regular season.
While Robert Morris players talked about exacting revenge in that game, there's no doubt it was minimal compared to the chance they have tonight.
"I think the regular-season game obviously can give you some clues," Toole said. "Both teams are going to make adjustments. Both teams are going to review that and see what can happen."
For the Colonials, one of the keys to beating the Blackbirds is controlling the pace.
Long Island (24-8) likes to play a fastbreak, run-and-gun style; Robert Morris will try to make it a grind-it-out type of game.
"We can't play with them flying up and down the floor," Toole said. "Controlling the tempo will be a big indicator, maybe, on who has a chance to win the game."
Whichever team wins tonight will certainly be deserving. The Blackbirds were the class of the NEC this season, and Robert Morris once again has turned up the intensity at playoff time to make its fourth consecutive NEC title game. As if it were going to be anyone else.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG First Published March 7, 2012 5:00 AM