There were 351 Division I basketball teams that started the 2014-15 season back in November.
Only 16 will still be playing after Sunday night.
And NJIT will be one of them after knocking off Canisius 78-73 Saturday night in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament quarterfinals before another full house (1.505) at the Fleisher Center in Newark.
Yes, it’s the CIT, and the Highlanders have benefitted immensely from three home games, but that should not take away from the remarkable confluence of events that have brought the Highlanders (21-11) to a national television appearance in a meaningful game on the last day of March; Tuesday’s CIT semifinal at Northern Arizona will be on CBS Sports at 9 p.m.
Consider that last season ended for NJIT on Feb. 25.
Jim Engles even thought he may be a year away, having lost starting center Terrance Smith to injury and waiting on Hofstra transfer Chris Jenkins to be eligible. Then Ky Howard suffered what looked to be a season-ending stress fracture in early January. But he returned in the regular-season finale and has been huge in NJIT’s postseason run.
Of course, postseason and independent haven’t really mixed in decades. But the CIT and NJIT may have been made for each other, almost literally. When the CIT crowned its first champion in 2009 (Old Dominion), Engles was coming off his first season in Newark then, a 1-30 mark in the school’s third D-I campaign (and they were 0-29 the year before). It had been a slow build, but the now famous win over Michigan in December put NJIT’s name into the public consciousness and the CIT was more than happy to invite them.
“For us to think about a championship before the season, that’s just too big a goal because it’s overwhelming,” NJIT coach Jim Engles said. “If you think, ‘We have to win a championship to be successful’, well you can’t really do that here because we’re not in a league. To be given an opportunity by the CIT, and we deserve the opportunity by the way, and to have this opportunity, there’s no money price you can put on it because these kids have learned something as an independent it didn’t seem like they would ever have this chance.”
Damon Lynn and Tim Coleman finished with 22 points each Saturday, but Lynn missed his first nine shots from the field and struggled against Canisius’ zone (4-18 FG, 3-15 three-point), but made a couple of big shots late and went 11-13 from the free throw line. He was picked up by Coleman, who made his first five shots, including a banked in three-pointer from the top of the key that he apologized for tennis-style before swishing another from the same spot on the next possession. Coleman added 11 rebounds, four steals, and four assists.
“Honestly when I came into college, I just wanted to play in the tournament, make it to the finals, and hopefully come out with a championship,” Coleman said, in a statement that might have looked ridiculous a few months ago. “I feel like this team can do it, just keep listening to Coach (Engles) and keep playing hard and keep pushing forward.”
The win was not without controversy. Canisius (18-15) outscored NJIT 26-14 over the last 10 minutes of the first half to grab a 35-31 lead at the break. The entrance to Canisius’ locker room at the Fleischer Center was a couple of feet away from the full NJIT student section behind the basket. As the buzzer sounded, the students made their way near the door to yell at the Griffs, but there were too many bodies in one place at one time (and not enough security) and one of the students made contact with Phil Valenti, who was knocked into the corner of the now open exit door (which had no padding on it), cutting his forehead open.
Security and police then restored order, but Canisius coach Jim Baron was understandably livid. The officials assessed an administrative technical foul on NJIT and Valenti returned to the game with a band-aid over his left eye, but Baron was still angry after the game.
“I thought that was as dangerous as any atmosphere that I’ve ever been involved in, and I’ve been coaching 28 years,” Baron said. “When those kids charged and Valenti gashed his eye, I was very, very displeased. Lack of control, lack of organization, and to be honest with you, I thought that was a big part to get them back into the game.”
(Baron’s full comments to Canisius radio in postgame were captured by Nick Veronica of the Buffalo News, and they were definitely worth reading.)
While security was beefed up for the second half (the student section was moved back 10 feet) and they did hold the student section off the floor after the game until Canisius was safely into the locker room, it illustrated the paradox of the NJIT situation and dire need for a new facility, even if the atmosphere has been remarkable in the three CIT sellouts.
“I really still do not know what happened,” Engles said. “I really feel awful that it did happen. I know these kids on campus and they’re not like that. All I can tell you is that I’m sorry that it did happen.”
Zach Lewis, who like many of his teammates did not have a good shooting night (Canisius finished just 4-23 from behind the arc), made the two technical free throws and a Josiah Heath steal and dunk put the Griffs up eight 11 seconds into the second half. In fact, NJIT led for just 22 seconds after halftime until Ky Howard’s layup put the Highlanders up 63-62 with 4:15 left.
“I actually thought we were playing too hard,” Engles said. “I thought we wanted it too much. We were not playing our game. We were playing at a pace that was frantic rather than fast. I said with eight minutes to go, this is not the way we play. We have to calm down. We made some huge plays and we cleaned up some of the issues on the glass in the second half. We executed at the right time, and we got some stops at the right time.”
With 3:25 to go, Winfield Willis drove straight at Heath, who looked to have taken a charge, but it was ruled he was in the restricted ring, meaning it was Heath’s fifth foul. Canisius never really recovered and with the crowd reaching a frenzy, senior Daquan Holiday (whose high school teammate Jalen Cannon was in attendance) finished a 15-2 NJIT run with a layup, putting the Highlanders up 69-62 with 1:37 left, a deficit too big for Canisius to overcome.
A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on
Although Baron was upset at having to play a postseason game in the conditions, it was an overachieving season for the Griffins, who hope to be a factor in the MAAC race. Baron’s 59 wins in his first three years in Buffalo is tied for third all-time in Canisius history (John Beilein is atop that list with 62).
“We had a great year,” Baron said. “I was real proud of our guys, we really hung in there all season, really. We got into some foul trouble here. Josiah took that charge, and I thought that was a tough call, but they’re at home and they’re going to get the calls.”
Meanwhile, the dream continues for the last of the independents, who will likely have to face a difficult atmosphere, both literally and figuratively Tuesday night. Flagstaff, Ariz. – home of Northern Arizona – is 7,000 feet above sea level and the Lumberjacks are 13-2 at home this season (and went 13-5 in the Big Sky before nearly knocking off top-seeded Montana on the road in the conference tournament) after beating Kent State in overtime Friday night in its CIT quarterfinal. NJIT is 15-2 at the Fleisher Center this season, but just 6-9 away from Newark, although some of those have been against major conference teams.
(Flagstaff is the closest city to the Grand Canyon, so hopefully NJIT will have a chance to visit in the short time they’re out in Arizona.)
Northern Arizona (22-14) is also one of the top rebounding teams in the nation, which will present a problem for the vertically challenged Highlanders, who “held” Canisius to a 39.5% offensive rebounding rate (although Heath playing 15 minutes certainly helped).
At this point, though, NJIT is the quintessential “playing with house money” squad and should be loose as they they head to the Pacific time zone for the first time since their days in the now defunct Great West conference.
“First of all, I’m exhausted. It’s been a tremendous three weeks. It’s just an unbelievable experience to see what’s happened in the gym and to see these guys tough that game out,” Engles said. “We didn’t play great, but we were able to stick with it. I’m really speechless right now. It shows the potential of what this program and university can be. I don’t know why we can’t get in a league, but I’ve been in a lot of gyms this year, and I haven’t seen many atmospheres like that.”