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NJIT drops sixth straight game in hard-fought 72-66 loss to UMass Lowell

Having dropped five in a row including an 0-4 road trip, the NJIT Highlanders returned home to the Wellness and Events Center for the first time since November 20 looking to right the ship and end the skid. Before tip-off, Zach Cooks was honored with a commemorative basketball acknowledging his 1,000th career point that came against Brown on November 23.

Facing off against a UMass Lowell squad sporting a 5-6 record, the Highlanders came out of the locker room a very motivated group, displaying tons of energy led by freshman Byron Breland III. A quick five-point outburst from Zach Cooks put NJIT up 16-12 at the 11-minute mark. However, the River Hawks responded with a 10-2 run to regain the advantage. Highlanders freshman Levar Williams canned a trifecta as NJIT reclaimed the lead but that would be short lived as UMass-Lowell ripped off an 8-0 run over the next two and half minutes of play.

Highlanders senior guard Shyquan Gibbs sparked a rebuttal tallying 10 points including burying a triple and knocking down a pair of free throws trimming the River Hawks margin down to 29-26 with less than four minutes remaining. Dominating the points in the paint 22 to 8 in the first half, UMass Lowell found open lanes to drive in for lay-ups that boosted the margin back up to 37-30 at halftime.

“A couple of miscommunications on some screens that left some guys open,” said NJIT Head Coach Brian Kennedy. “I’m playing guys out of position and a lot of freshman that don’t have a lot of seasoning and that kind of caught got behind. Trey (Byron Breland III) started and played limited minutes but did a really nice job in the first half and gave us a lot of energy in the first 10 minutes of the game.”

In the second half the Highlanders were down 44-37 with less than 14 minutes left when the tide turned starting with Shyquan Gibbs drilling a trey. Closing to within one point on a lay-up from Zach Cooks, NJIT ended up taking their first lead since 9:41 of the first half on a jumper from Cooks at 49-48.

Back and forth the teams’ went, exchanging the lead but the River Hawks went on a 9-2 spurt to go up 60-54 with less than four minutes left. However, NJIT refused to go away quietly with freshman forward Souleymane Diakite converting a three-point play with about minute and half remaining slicing the lead down to 62-60.

Trailing 64-60, a lay-up from Cooks made it a two-point game again but UMass Lowell answered back again on a lay-up from Obadiah Noel who led the team in scoring with 16 points. The Highlanders had two opportunities to tie the game up with less than 30 seconds left but missed on back-to-back three pointers. In the end the River Hawks drained seven out of eight free throws to seal the 72-66 victory. Cooks scored 14 of his game 21 points in the second half while Gibbs finished with 14 points and Diakite added nine points. Five players scored in double figures for UMass Lowell.

Brian Kennedy on the defeat, “It came down to a couple of plays, I have taken a quick glance at the stats and 14 for 24 at the free throw line and it’s possession by possession game for us. It’s something that we control, work and we need to be better at.”

“The defense was very good, their wings score 47 percent of their points and we did a good job on 11 (Obadiah) and (Christian) Lutete is averaging 20 and kid in 11 is averaging 15 a game and held him at his average. Rebounding hurt us in the first half, down a little bit and should have not been out-rebounded.”

“I hope the guys see the desperation we need to play with and lay it all on the line. Shy (Shyquan Gibbs) played great and even in the second half feeding the ball to Zach and I wanted Zach taking the shots and on the last play we ran for Zach he had a wide open three and what we want. I had a Levar Williams playing big minutes at the end of the game. We’re trying to do everything we can with the young kids, it’s disappointing not to get the victory but to see the young kids out there is pretty good.”

Next up for the Highlanders is a road game on Saturday December 14 at St. Francis Brooklyn with tip-off set for 2:00 p.m. Despite a six-game losing streak and 2-8 overall record Kennedy is not pushing the panic button.

“Out of the games we played three are guarantee games and can toss them out of the window. Our guys are right there, we lost to Binghamton by one, this game was a nail biter and we didn’t have a great game against Army but we fought back in the second half against Brown. We’re right there, the injuries are part of the game and nobody is going to feel sorry for us. It’s next man up and happy with the way the young kids responded.”

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Sunil Sunder Raj

Since July of 2014 Sunil Sunder Raj has been with In The Zone. Sunil has experience covering minor league baseball, high school and college sports. A beat writer for the Rockland Boulders for six years, Ramapo College men’s basketball for four years, NJIT men’s basketball and Seton Hall women’s basketball. Now focusing on feature articles about athletes, coaches and sports media professionals. A graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism.
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