Three Thoughts: Holy Cross 76, NJIT 66

Out of context, it wasn’t a bad performance for NJIT in a 76-66 loss Friday night at Holy Cross. The Highlanders led for the entire first half and were within striking distance against a Crusader squad that was picked third in the Patriot League (and finished third last season), a conference that has had its share of NCAA success in the last decade, currently 19th in the KenPom ratings. That doesn’t sound like much, but, of course, NJIT is homeless, at least as far as conference affiliation is concerned, so good job, good effort. Really.

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“I thought we played pretty well,” NJIT coach Jim Engles said. “I told the guys before the game, ‘This is like being on the west coast trip in the NBA.’ We’ve had some emotional wins and then we come up here, and then we have to go home and play LIU in Brooklyn on Sunday. It gives you a taste of how hard it is to maintain a level of play mentally and physically.”

Alas, these are not normal times for NJIT (heck, the school, let alone the basketball program), and it was almost a surreal scene at the Hart Center Friday, with a full student section and an opponent that they had zero chance of taking them lightly in Holy Cross, losers of two straight after a start that also saw them knock of a ranked team (Harvard). For the near future at least, NJIT is no longer unknown or lovable losers, they are the team who beat Michigan.

Here are my thoughts from an atmosphere in Worcester normally reserved for big conference games (not trying to rub it in, NJIT, sorry):

1. It’s fun to be NJIT right now – It didn’t look long for the trash talk to commence between Holy Cross’ diminutive guards (Justin Burrell and Anthony Thompson) and various players from NJIT, especially with the Crusaders trying to pressure the Highlanders at every opportunity. Howard and Thompson were finally nailed with offsetting technicals just eight minutes in, and while I don’t advocate unsportsmanlike behavior, it was the type of game that surely was fun to participate in, and with all due respect to Maine-Fort Kent and Sarah Lawrence (back-to-back NJIT opponents in February), they won’t get every time out this season.

“For me personally, I’m not going to lie, it was tough to focus,” Engles said. “I’m sure it was for the players a little, too. We have a long season to go here, so it’s been a challenge. I’m still trying to learn to deal with it myself as is the team. But it’s been a wonderful week. We’re getting great exposure in places we never thought we’d see NJIT. We’re still playing pretty well.”

2. Holy Cross has the athletes to win the Patriot League – The game was called very tight, and although the Crusaders did a much better job at the free throw line (31-for-37 vs. NJIT’s 18-of-32), that was more frustrating for Holy Cross, who got into foul trouble, and “only” forced 17 turnovers against an NJIT team that has trouble taking care of the ball at times this season. But guys like Malcolm Miller and Eric Green (along with Cullen Hamilton and Malachi Alexander off the bench) just had too much length for NJIT, and Milan Brown can even bring a 6’8” guy like Mitchell Hahn deep off his bench and proceed to hit a pull-up three-pointer in transition. Alas, it didn’t translate into a rebounding advantage, the team has to shoot the ball better overall, and even NJIT exposed the size of Holy Cross’ guards from time to time, but if they can get the opponent to play their game in the Patriot (good luck with that against American) …

“I keep saying, when we’re right and when we’re locked in, if there’s anyone better than Eric Green (who held Damon Lynn to 14 on 5-of-13 shooting) defensively, I’d like to see him,” Holy Cross coach Milan Brown said. “When we’re defending the way we can defend, and getting out and running, and we have a crowd like that behind us, it’s a hard, hard place to be. We’ll be very hard to beat if we can get those things.”

3. NJIT has a chance to post a very good record – If the Highlanders had their way, they would probably like to keep playing games against teams like Holy Cross, but – although Yale, Lafayette, and Villanova show up – they should have an opportunity to post a winning record if things go well. The Highlanders are still tiny, having played most of Friday’s game without a player taller than 6’5”, and need Damon Lynn and Ky Howard (who finished with 23 points and five assists) to take care of the ball a little better. But it’s not only a fun team to watch, but fairly deep, especially when they get healthy. Montana Mayfield returned Friday to play nine minutes, but Terrence Smith – third in Division I in field goal percentage last season – is still out, and will probably miss the season, according to Engles.

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