It ended Wednesday night with a skid into a long offseason and seemingly with not a whole lot to foreshadow greater things to come.
The Sacred Heart University men’s basketball team, featuring Racine’s Koreem Ozier, was ousted 71-62 in the quarterfinals of the Northeast Conference Tournament by LIU-Brooklyn at Fairfield, Conn. As for Ozier, he came off the bench after starting most of the year, went just 3 for 13 from the floor and finished with nine points.
But what happened Wednesday night doesn’t begin to tell the story.
Ozier, the career-leading scorer at Case High School, was named to the All-NEC Rookie Team after averaging 14.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. As for his team, the Pioneers finished 15-17 — they won five more games than last season — and earned their first postseason home game since the 2015-16 season.
It was enough to convince Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina that this is just the start of something special for both his team and Ozier.
“He had a terrific freshman year,” Latina said. “He’s on the All-Rookie team as voted by the coaches, he matured a lot — he still has a long way to go as a person and a player and I think he knows that — but I think he made a lot of progress.
“Obviously, he did a lot of good things and his future is real bright here. The last two guys we had on the all-rookie team ended up being first-team all-league guys as sophomores. We have a lot of good players coming back, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous for him to be on the all-league team next year.”
There were a few bumps along the way. He was suspended for nine games early this season for a reason both Ozier and Latina decline to reveal. He also lost his starting position for a Feb. 28 game against Robert Morris for what Latina said was a minor infraction.
But when Latina liked what he saw both with his new lineup and with Ozier coming off the bench, he settled on that arrangement for Sacred Heart’s remaining two games.
“He made a mistake one day, not a big deal, and I took him out of the lineup,” Latina said. “We played great and he played great off the bench, so we stuck with it. He completely understood and he still got his minutes, he still got his shots.”
It’s been quite an adventure for Ozier since he graduated from Case.
He played for Scotland Campus Sports Prep in Scotland, Pa., during the 2017-18 season. Ozier averaged 17.4 points, 7.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds in earning his conference’s player of the year award that season.
That season at Scotland helped him prepare for the rigors of a long college basketball season, but Ozier concedes he still had a lot to learn — on and off the court.
“I learned maturity,” he said. “And I learned how important it is to take care of your body during the offseason, because it’s a long season and it eventually catches up with you.
“So you have to take care of your body at all times and sacrifice some things for the team just so we can all grow as one.”
Ozier’s two best games statistically this season were the first two Sacred Heart played. He went 9 for 16 and scored 23 points Nov. 6 against Holy Cross and went 9 for 12 and scored 26 three days later against Western New England.
His nine-game suspension followed and there were plenty of peaks and valleys once he returned Dec. 22 against St. John’s.
One of his finest performances after his return came Feb. 16, when he went 8 for 16 from the floor, including 4 for 7 from 3-point range, in a loss to LIU. But there were also back-to-back games against Wagner and Robert Morris Jan. 21-24, during which he went 2 for 17 from the floor and scored a total of seven points.
His goal is more consistency and it starts immediately. Ozier learned the value of dedication as a junior and senior at Case — he scored 1,311 of his 1,405 points in high school during those two seasons — and he’s going to be similarly dedicated this offseason.
“I’m looking to attack my weaknesses more than I’ve ever done in the past,” he said. “My junior and senior year in high school, I really got a chance to see what hard work does because during those summers, I really amped it up and worked tremendously hard every day.
“Seeing what that does is just driving me to work even harder this offseason and come back like never before. I’m going to be taking trips to different places and just working out with professionals. After playing a full season at this level, I learned what I have to do to come back next season better than ever.”
Latina is confident that will happen.
“He came in with a lot of expectations and then actually made the all-rookie team,” Latina said. “I think the future is bright. I just think the focus for him and for us is, ‘OK, let’s make sure we’re getting better every day.”