What a game! Much credit most go to the coach Engles Still, his staff, Brian Kennedy,Jesse Agel, Dino Presley, Jared Czech, and Bobby Fisk. Who set out to develop a basketball program that “was based commitment, hard work, attention to detail.” They are all familiar concepts in the world of sports, but what makes it authentic is when your players believe in it. And boy, did the Players believe.
The month of March ended a few hours after the final buzzer sounded on host Northern Arizona’s come-from-behind 68-61 win over visiting NJIT in the second semifinal game of the national CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT).
This game was competitive, and close up until the final 2 minutes of play. The final buzzer also dropped the curtain on what was a magical 2014-15 men’s basketball season for NJIT, one that made the Highlanders a national story, and for all the right reasons. When March Madness ended for NJIT on the last day of the month, the Highlanders were 21-12, including a 16-3 record from December 30 on.
Having shaken off the stigma of 51 consecutive losses while the program was in the reclassification process from Division II to Division I during late 2007 and continuing to mid-January 2009, the Highlanders came into this season with a reputation as a team that could hold its own against opponents from the regional mid-level Division I conferences.
But everything changed on December 6, 2014, when the Highlanders went into Ann Arbor, Michigan, and stunned one of college basketball’s long-term elite programs, Michigan, 72-70 when the Wolverines were ranked #17 in the AP national poll and #16 in the USA Today national poll.
Suddenly, the giant-slayer Highlanders were national news for pulling off what many experts called an all-time upset. As great as that one win was, NJIT still needed validation to prove the win at Michigan wasn’t a one-off fluke. The Highlanders did exactly that, winning 21 games, five more than any previous NJIT Division I team had ever achieved and the most in 20 years, going back to when the program competed in NCAA Division III.
Things began to change when his players look at coach Jim Engles in his seventh season at the helm of New Jersey Institute of Technology men’s basketball, they see those concepts put into action as the coach strives to build the Highlanders into a consistently successful Division I program.
Since being introduced as NJIT’s head coach in a press conference on April 10, 2008, he has remade the program, achieving important milestones on an ongoing upward trajectory.
Stepping in at NJIT for the 2008-09 season, he inherited a program that was 0-29 the year before, in its second season of Division I competition. On top of that, the top two scorers (the only double-figure scorers) and the top rebounder were gone from the winless team.
The 21 wins came against teams from nine different Division I conferences, including Northeast Conference regular season champion St. Francis Brooklyn, Ivy League co-champion Yale, and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion Hampton, which would win a First Four game in the NCAA Tournament.
The Highlanders were a program-record 15-2 at home, including three wins in a sold out Fleisher Athletic Center in the CIT to reach the semifinals at Northern Arizona.
Along the way, the Highlanders gained fans from all over the country, both for their compelling story of persevering as the nation’s only Division I Independent, but also as a team that played true team basketball on both ends of the court.
Northern Arizona (23-14) will play for the CIT championship on Thursday night at Evansville, which defeated Tennessee Martin, 79-66, in Tuesday night’s other CIT semifinal.
The Lumberjacks, who played in front of their all-time largest home crowd in the Walkup Skydome (5,883), got a game-high 23 points from senior wing player Quinton Upshur, 19 from fellow senior Aaseem Dixon and 10 from point guard Kris Yanku, who was a miserable 1-for-14 from the field, but connected on 8-of-11 free throws.
The key statistic in NAU’s victory was an overwhelming 56-39 rebounding advantage. Jordyn Martin, a 6-foot-7 junior, scored just 3 points, but he pulled down 17 rebounds, 12 on offensive rebounds and 10 more than any Highlanders.
Len Springs, a 6-foot-10 senior, scored just 6 points, but he grabbed 15 rebounds (6 offensive), while also blocking 5 shots. Several of the blocks came in the opening minutes and aside from the actual rejections, there were some missed layups by Highlanders who beat their first defender, but seemed conscious of Spring’s looming presence when it came time to finish at the rim.
Northern Arizona barely shot 30 percent from the field in the game (20-for-66), but some of that was offset by getting 23 offensive rebounds, which led to a 25-14 advantage for NAU when it came to second-chance points.
The Lumberjacks also helped themselves at the foul line, where they were 21-for-28 in the game, but 19-for-24 (79 percent) in a second half where they trailed by as many as 12 points. By comparison, NJIT got just 15 free throws, only five of which came in the second half (3-for-5) from an officiating crew that did the Highlanders no favors the entire night.
NJIT, which has thrived on its balanced scoring and dangerous 3-point shooting little of either Tuesday night, Of the four Highlanders who came in averaging double-figure scoring for the season, only Damon Lynn (team-high 16 points) and Ky Howard (10 points off the bench) cracked the 10-point barrier at Northern Arizona.
And after making a combined 30 3-point baskets in the three previous CIT games, NJIT was just 4-for-22 from downtown Tuesday, including 1-for-10 in the decisive second half.
The night did not begin well for NJIT, which was down 11-2 after missing its first seven shots by the first media timeout 4:14 into the contest. The rebounds also favored the home team, 9-4, at that stage and the Lumberjacks had more offensive rebounds (5) than NJIT had total.
Still down 16-6 at the 12:46 mark of the opening half, NJIT clawed back and finally took the lead, 23-21, after Osa Izevbuwa’s driving layup with 5:15 on the first-half clock.
NAU went up briefly with 4:21 left, but NJIT finished the half on a 10-1 run for a 33-26 lead at the break, paced by 9 points for Lynn and 7 for Izevbuwa.
Dixon had 11 for Northern Arizona to lead all scorers in the first half.
The Highlanders had also seemed to gain their footing when it came to rebounding, trailing the home team 26-21 in first-half rebounds, a big improvement from the 9-4 lead NAU had on the boards at the first media timeout.
NJIT maintained its late first-half momentum into the early stages of the second half and got its lead to 12, the largest advantage for either team all night, with a 42-30 spread after Rob Ukuwuba’s layup at 17:01.
Northern Arizona, a team that reached the quarterfinals by coming back late and winning in overtime over Kent State, did not go away against the Highlanders. Still, the team from New Jersey had staved off a couple of surges and led 52-43 after Howard’s running tip-in with 9:47 left.
But Dixon answered 8 seconds later for Northern Arizona, sparking a 9-0 run that helped the Lumberjacks retake the lead, 53-52, with 6:11 left, as NJIT went scoreless from the Howard tip-in at 9:47 to a Daquan Holiday layup at 5:56.
The Holiday layup put NJIT back up 54-53, but Upshur drained a 3-pointer on the next possession and Northern Arizona would lead for the last 5:43.
NJIT got within a point two more times and trailed by only 3 points with 1:24 left, but the Lumberjacks finished on a 8-2 run over the last 84 seconds.
Six Highlanders played their 33rd game of the season, the most ever in program history. Two of them were the team’s seniors, Holiday and Odera Nweke. The other four were Lynn, Tim Coleman, Wllis, and Emmanuel Tselentakis. Lynn and Coleman are sophomores and the other three are juniors.
Thank you, NJIT basketball team for and exciting season, and NJIT now stands for “Not Just Ideal Talk”, they come to bring it. They are Newark’s Champions.