No one, least of all the players in the NJIT uniforms, wanted to leave the Fleischer Center floor Monday night.
Why would they?
After beating Cleveland State, 80-77, before an overflow crowd of 1,404 in Newark to advance to the quarterfinals of the CIT (Collegeinsider.com Tournament), the students rushed onto the floor, the band (imported from East Orange) played, fans and alumni hugged. It is a far, far cry from the billion-dollar NCAA Tournament, but may be further away from the days when Jim Engles arrived in Newark seven years ago.
“I’ve been through this a long time. I’ve been at places like Rider, Wagner, Columbia, and when we play, it’s students, it’s not corporate sponsorship,” Engles said. “When we win, there’s something special there. To feel that excitement when that buzzer went off … these guys don’t understand that right now, but we’ll look back on these films like I’ve looked back at some of the games I’ve coached in the last 25 years, and just to see the community come together is amazing.”
Cleveland State (19-15) had the size advantage, as you’d expect, and were a very good basketball team, entering ranked 74th in KenPom and picked to finish second in the Horizon League this season, eventually (at 11-5) finishing two games behind league champion Valparaiso, who nearly knocked off Maryland in the NCAA Tournament last week.
In the end, it was NJIT’s shooting that won the day, as the Highlanders (20-11) finished 30-55 from the field with a 66.4 eFG% (13-26 from three-point range). It was the last shot that will be remembered most from Monday night, however.
After the teams went back and forth in a tense final few minutes, NJIT got the ball with the game tied 77-77. As the Vikings had done most of the night, they sent multiple bodies at leading scorer Damon Lynn, and Lynn found a wide open Ky Howard in the left corner with 20 seconds left.
“I was actually shooting pregame in that spot, and I told them I hate the left corner. I can’t shoot from the left corner,” Howard said. “I prayed before the last time out, I was playing bad.”
Howard, perhaps the biggest key in NJIT’s now-famous win over Michigan, was just 2-9 from the field and had made just nine three-pointers all season, but didn’t hesitate. His shot was long, but caromed back up into the backboard, out on the the front of the rim, where it perched itself as the sellout crowd watched in anticipation. Eventually gravity and the NJIT faithful willed it through the hoop.
“When it just stood on the rim, I was like, ‘This can’t be serious. I can’t be shooting this bad today of all days,’ “ Howard said. “When it fell in, I was just like, ‘Wow’.”
Cleveland State was out of time outs and never did get a great look at the basket. At the final buzzer, the students stormed onto the floor and the celebration was on.
“That ball that stayed on the rim for an eternity and fell in, I guess God was in their favor tonight, but these things happen,” Cleveland State (and former Rutgers) coach Gary Waters said. “For them, it’s really great because you don’t storm the court unless you’re really excited about what you’re doing.”
NJIT immediately jumped out to a 10-2 lead behind its home crowd, but the Vikings played fast and loose for a team just 317th in adjusted tempo and it paid off as the first half progressed. The visitors led 44-39 by halftime on 1.33 points per possession.
However, it wasn’t a tightening of the defense per se that led the Highlanders back in front, but some scorching shooting. At the midway point of the second half, NJIT was above 90% in eFG (for the half), with everyone seemingly draining shots, including 6’10” freshman Vlad Shustov, who hit just his second three-pointer of the season (after Emmanuel Tselentakis hit just his fourth in 27 attempts in the first half), delighting the crowd and giving the Highlanders a 61-56 lead.
The lead got as high as eight with 5:20 left after Lynn hit back-to-back three-pointers with a high degree of difficulty, the first over three Viking defenders and nearly hitting the Fleischer Center roof before dropping in,.“They frustrated me in the beginning, but my teammates told me I needed to keep my head and that’s what happened, eventually those shots started to fall,” Lynn said.
But things got tight down the stretch and Cleveland State came all the way back to tie it before Howard’s heroics. Howard’s winning shot made it seven different Highlanders who hit a three-pointer in the contest. Winfield Willis – who started his college career at D-II Clarion (Pa.) – led the way with 24 points (9-12 FG, 5-6 three-point) and five assists, while Lynn added 15 and no turnovers, which was huge against a Cleveland State team that came in 60th nationally in forcing them (21.1%). In all, NJIT had just 13 turnovers in 71 possessions (18.3%).
Anton Grady had 26 points and 11 rebounds for the Vikings, who played without senior point guard and one of the top three-point shooters in the nation Charlie Lee, who was suspended for violating team rules. Lee had scored a season-high 28 points in his team’s first-round CIT rout of Western Michigan.
Waters maintained that playing without Lee was huge, although he said that shouldn’t take away from what NJIT did and has done all season.
“It was really old school in here,” Waters said. “For our kids, it was good because many of them came from gyms like that kind of environment, and they liked the atmosphere. It was a great basketball atmosphere. Let me tell you something, they (NJIT) better get a conference because nobody will end up playing them. They’re playing good enough basketball where they have to play people. The word gets out quickly, and people will say, ‘Why go to that place?’”
For players like Howard, who missed 10 games before returning for the regular season finale three weeks ago, there may never be a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament at NJIT for now, but this was at the very least the next best thing.
“It was an amazing atmosphere,” Howard said. “Coming into college, at least for myself, that’s what you want to play in front of, a lot of people, loud environment. Especially games like this, it’s good for the school community. We’re happy that they’re enjoying the same things that we’re enjoying at the same time. It’s a great feeling.”
And NJIT is not done, of course, the Highlanders will host Jim Baron and Canisius Saturday night at the Fleischer Center in the CIT quarterfinals, which is sure to be another full house and another raucous crowd.
It’s easy for national media who cover BCS schools the majority of the time to poke fun at the CIT (or call NJIT cute), but this program – the last of the Division I independents – is having the time of their lives. And it shows in their faces.
“I think we’re becoming battle-tested if you want to use a cliche,” Engles said. “We understand what it takes. Last year at this time we didn’t because we weren’t physically or mentally ready. To beat a team like Cleveland State is an unbelievable accomplishment for what we’ve gone through over the last seven years.”
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