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NJIT Second Half Rally Falls Short Against Hampton in CIT Quarterfinals

After defeating Quinnipiac in the first round of the CIT, the NJIT Highlanders men’s basketball returned to the hardwood court in quarterfinals facing off against Hampton (18-16) at the Wellness and Events Center on Thursday night. The Pirates advanced with a second round victory over Charleston Southern on Tuesday night. Back in 2015 the Highlanders defeated Hampton 86-67. Enjoying a great deal of success in the tournament at 7-2, NJIT attempted to keep an undefeated record of 7-0 as well.


Not having played in 11 days had an impact on the Highlanders in the first half, as Hampton raced out to a 12-4 advantage just about six minutes into the contest. The Pirates would steadily grow to 19-8 with less than ten minutes remaining as NJIT shot an abysmal 25 percent from the field while Hampton shot at a 60 percent clip. It looked as though the Highlanders might get run out of the building as the Pirates extended the margin to 31-12 with six and half minutes to go.


However, a brief 6-0 spurt by NJIT stymied the momentum Hampton had going on. The Pirates managed to regain their offensive groove pushing the lead back up to 17 points with less than four minutes left. The Highlanders had no answer for Hampton leading scorer Jermaine Marrow, averaging 24.9 points per game that ranked him sixth in the nation, pouring in 14 of his game-high 22 points and Greg Heckstall tacking on 11 of his 19 points.


Eventually, the Pirates would carry a 41-26 lead into the intermission break shooting 50 percent from the field while NJIT struggled at 34 percent and knocking down just 2 of 10 from beyond the arc. Hampton dominated the glass outrebounding the Highlanders 25-16 and second chance points 8-0.


“We came out struggling in the first half, we just didn’t execute offensively and defensively and out of sync,” said head coach Brian Kennedy.


The start to the second half did not fare any better for the Highlanders, as Hampton controlled the points in the paint while finding easy driving lanes for lay-ups to widen the advantage to 20 points. With the home crowd quiet and appearing the game might get out of hand, NJIT caught a break as Heckstall picked up his fourth foul with less than ten minutes left.


The Highlanders defense woke up, blocking shots led by Souleymane Diakte while employing a full court press that forced a bunch of turnovers. Tying an NJIT single-game scoring record of 34 points against Quinnipiac, Zach Cooks heated up netting 13 of 22 game-high points, including scoring back-to-back buckets that trimmed the deficit to 62-52 with 6:20 remaining.


“We had such great support from Dr. Joel Bloom, our President sitting down at courtside and Lenny Kaplan our athletic director,” said Kennedy. “They’re the ones that built the REC Center.”


Cooks had help from teammate Diandre Wilson, delivering 12 points including a pivotal three-point play on a spectacular coast to coast lay-up that narrowed the gap to 64-55 with five minutes to go. Wilson was not done canning a trifecta to make an eight-point game with less than four minutes on the clock. The Highlanders reversed the deficit in points in paint outgaining Hampton 16-12 in the second as the Pirates had a 38-34 advantage while NJIT led in points off turnovers at 14-7 and bench points 10-2.


With the crowd at the Wellness and Events Center in a frenzy and stomping their feet, the Highlanders had all the momentum and seemed primed to tie the game up. Yet, Hampton put a halt to that, sinking 10 of 11 free throws with less than two minutes remaining pulling away for the 82-70 victory thus ending NJIT’s 2019 historic season at 22-13.


The Pirates had five players score in double figures, shot 47 percent from the field and 15 of 19 from the charity stripe. After shooting 50 percent from the perimeter against Quinnipiac, NJIT struggled at 35 percent. In addition, 5 of 23 from the behind the arc after 12 of 26 against the Bobcats but managed to drain 11 of 14 from the free-throw line.


“We started to fight in the second half especially last 15 minutes of the game but at that point in the game it was too big of a margin to overcome,” Kennedy said. “I told the guys there are four teams that end the season on a win, NCAA, NIT, CIT and CBI. I don’t care if we win or lose but play the way we have played all year and been successful with. Happy with the way the guys responded and showed how we can play.


“We had a couple of looks, multiple three’s and to cut it to single digits and get over that next little hump we just couldn’t knock it down but proud guys kept fighting. As a whole for us, playing without our best player Abdul-Lewis and made a huge impact on the game for us but the CIT was a great experience for our young kids and gave us a chance to play. Just wrapped up our most successful season in NJIT history. While no one is happy with the loss, to take a step back and look at the whole picture it was a satisfying year.


“Zach (Cooks) had arguably played the most minutes in the country and at the end of the regular season getting a little tired but the break helped him. Playing in Florida Gulf Coast he had 25 and other night 34 against Quinnipiac had 34. While his shot didn’t fall tonight from three, his explosion was back tonight and rest did him well and able to step up and show the player he is.


“The four seniors really helped lay the foundation, Mohamed Bendary came from St. Anthony’s High School, Abdul-Lewis transferred back from South Alabama, Diandre Wilson and Donovan Greer both junior college players and don’t what you’re getting but they we’re everything I expected and more. Mohamed is a scholar athlete, an NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) Court and job waiting at Prudential. Abdul has a bright basketball future ahead, Diandre and Donovan are great students.


“Shyquan Gibbs is an honors student, Reilly (Walsh) 4.0 student graduating with a master’s degree in four years, Mohamed (Bendary) graduating with a master’s in four years with a 3.75 average. This a true academic institution and never will lose sight of that and to have success on the court is success in the classroom that all these guys have.


“I know at other programs most important thing is basketball and winning but here it’s not and things that really matter kids getting their education. Believe it or not I think it translates to the court to have the discipline to run an offense or defense. We have been an excellent defensive team all year long. It’s on me because I’m the coach and take blame for that but being able to re-focus and re-energize ourselves to get stops and us back into the game.”

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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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