NEWARK, N.J. – Having now been married into the Atlantic Sun family for seven months, it was time for the first of the new cousins to visit NJIT Saturday afternoon. As you’d expect, the Highlanders made their home look as nice as possible. There’s obviously only so much you can do to the Fleisher Center (which is why the new one is slated to open in time for the 2017-18 campaign), but there was a brand new video/media room with comfy chairs and, of course, new banners to recognize NJIT’s semifinal run in the CIT last season as well one for each of its current kin.
Even with the students still on winter break, NJIT brought out a nice crowd Saturday afternoon and even got Atlantic Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart, who played a big part in arranging the shotgun wedding, to come to the house to make sure everything went smoothly.
It was the culmination of a decade of matchmaking, ever since NJIT announced in 2005 to the world that it was going to play Division I and was available. Alas, maybe it was their personality, but the Highlanders weren’t all that appealing to anyone, and aside from a short marriage to the sickly Great West that was never going to live long, was left as the lone bachelor on the Division I college basketball scene until the Atlantic Sun somewhat unexpectedly decided they were worthy. Only after they won at Michigan and finished with a 21-win season and that semifinal appearance in the CIT, but hey, better late than never, right?
And then, like some cousins can’t seem to help doing, USC Upstate came and ruined the party Saturday, jumping out to a huge halftime lead and then finally winning 80-78 on a Michael Buchanan tip-in with 0.4 seconds remaining.
“I wasn’t terribly excited about coming here first,” USC Upstate coach Eddie Payne, who has been a head coach for 31 years, 14 with USC Upstate (he’s been with them since they were Division II), said. “I’ve been doing it so long, whatever we have to we’ll do. It was a really good game against a good team, and it was an historic night for them, so I’m kind of sorry for them in some ways that they didn’t have the success, but I’m certainly glad we won.”
Afterward, NJIT (9-8, 0-1) was torn. It was obviously awesome in the long-term to finally be in an NCAA eligible conference (and not be just cute anymore) and one loss shouldn’t define its season. However, a conference-opening loss to a team picked sixth in the preseason Atlantic Sun team that lost to NCCAA team Bob Jones six weeks ago is not encouraging, and the Highlanders have not been at their best of late. They also face a trip to Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson next weekend.
“I thought we were a little nervous early, honestly,” NJIT coach Jim Engles said. “First conference game and it just took us a while to get going. We started to feel more comfortable as the game wore on, but you can’t dig a hole like that.”
From the opening tip, it was clear that the Spartans’ (7-11, 1-0) size was going to give the smaller NJIT team fits, particularly 6’11” center Michael Buchanan (who is listed at 250 pounds, but is likely north of 300). Buchanan’s size alone clogged the paint and without a regular over 6’6” (6’9” Mohamed Bendary actually gave NJIT a few good minutes), the Highlanders tried their luck from the outside. Twenty-three of their 32 first-half field goal attempts were threes, which wasn’t so bad when they were going in early, but they finished the first 20 minutes at 7-23.
Meanwhile at the other end, USC Upstate was getting great looks, either by driving or getting into the lane to kick the ball out for wide open threes. By halftime, the Spartans were up 46-33 and posted 1.35 points per possession.
Of course, defense has been the biggest issue for the Spartans – who joined Division I a season after NJIT and have not had a losing record in the Atlantic Sun in the last four campaigns – as they entered conference play 347th nationally in defensive efficiency. After USC Upstate briefly extended their advantage to 17, the Highlanders slowly began to chip away. The Spartans still led 69-63 with 4:20 left when NJIT scored eight quick points, five by Damon Lynn (22 pts. on 6-12 three-point shooting) and a three by Tim Coleman (19 pts., 6 rebs.) that gave his team their first lead since midway through the first half at 71-69 with 3:05 to go.
“They play matchup zone and it took us a while to get the feel of where the passing lanes were and where we could go,” Engles said. “Once we did that, we started to execute much better.”
But Slovenian freshman Jure Span answered with a 28-footer and the teams went back and forth until Mike Cunningham hit a three from the right corner with 37 seconds left to put the Spartans back in front 78-75. But Lynn saw Span’s 28-footer and raised him a foot or two to tie the game with 17 seconds remaining.
A video posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on
Tied at 78, 17.2 seconds left. Damon Lynn. That is all. pic.twitter.com/Fu6ZBnG0uT
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) January 9, 2016
“They are a good team,” Payne said. “They have a lot of different guys that can score. You know even when we get the lead, they’re not going to lay down. We made some mistakes and they were good enough to take advantage, but we hung in there and get the ball inside late in the game. We executed when we had to do when it looked like we might be done.”
Josh Cuthbertson missed a runner and it looked like overtime until Buchanan, who controlled the paint all night, somehow redirected a tip into the hoop with 0.4 seconds left for the game-winner.
USC Upstate 80, NJIT 78 final. Not even sure who tipped this in, but it’s a winner for Spartans: pic.twitter.com/F6EcenxJOG
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) January 9, 2016
“There’s not a lot of people at our level who have someone as big as Mike (Buchanan),” Payne said. “He’s pretty skilled and a good passer, too, so we like the idea of playing through him.”
The Highlanders scored 1.22 points per possession but conceded 16 offensive rebounds (53.3%) to the bigger Spartans to drop to 327th nationally in that figure. That problem might be rectified next season when 6’10” South Alabama transfer Abdul Lewis becomes eligible, but for the next 13+ games, Engles and NJIT will have to figure out some kind of answer. It also doesn’t help that it appears Winfield Willis, who was averaging 10.3 points per game and started 51 straight games, is probably done for the season with an Achilles injury.
It will help that the Highlanders will only see Buchanan one more time (unless the two teams meet in the A-Sun Tournament) and it should be pointed out that USC Upstate has now won four straight and six of eight, including wins at Navy and over an improved UMKC squad, but it still was not the way NJIT wanted to start the conference campaign.
Of course, there is a conference campaign, though, and that’s reason to be grateful. It wasn’t long ago that the Highlanders were losing 51 straight games and appeared to be shunned by any and all possible families that may agree to add them.
“It’s taken eight years to get to this point, so these games hurt a little bit more when you lose them. Now, it’s a new record that we have,” Engles said. “We have to see USC Upstate and the end of the year and it’s great to establish some rivalries. This is what it’s all about for us. Hopefully, as we get into the league, we’ll be able to establish a new identity and keep moving forward.”
But, alas, all honeymoon come to an end, and now NJIT has to try to get down to the hard work of making things try to work in the Atlantic Sun. It doesn’t look like it will be as easy as some might have thought.