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Shyquan Gibbs last-second shot lifts NJIT to first win of the season

After last Saturday’s 76-47 loss at Providence College that dropped their record to 0-2, the NJIT Highlanders wrapped up a three-game road trip on Wednesday night at Cornell University.

NJIT Head Coach Brian Kennedy on the team putting the defeat at Providence behind them, “When the first three games are on the road it’s very difficult to win a road game at Division I across the board and our mindset going into Providence to win that game and when that was not successful then we had to turn our attention to Cornell.”

“We have a wide gap between our experienced players and our freshman. I love all my freshman and they are very talented but as you can see across the board for freshman to get into the game of college basketball is a big transition.”

“Graduating Abdul Lewis who is a First-team All-ASUN player, leading player and second leading scorer and losing Diandre Wilson our third leading scorer those are big losses for a program like us. We’re trying to play the right and correct way, hustling, defending and getting good shots on offense. I like our freshman class but they are freshman. Kentucky and Duke have the best of the best and for us and rest of 349 Division I freshman go through their trials an tribulations but really impressed with our freshman class and future is bright for them.”

In the first half, the Highlanders struggled once again from the perimeter shooting a paltry 19 percent compared to The Big Red 46 percent as NJIT fell behind 34-16 at halftime. “We had some great shots in the first half, starting from the first play, said Kennedy. We had a jump hook two feet in the lane.”

However, the Highlanders came out of the locker room inspired in the second half by ripping off a 11-0 run. Behind the stellar play from Zach Cooks tallying 16 of his game high 22 points including a steal and subsequent lay-up that trimmed the deficit to single digits at the 10-minute mark. Just when it seemed the gap would narrow even further Cornell extended the advantage back up to 52-42 with less than five minutes remaining.

“I can’t lie, I was disappointed with our performance in the first half but equally pleased with the way our kids bounced back in the second half led by our tri-captains in Zach Cooks, Shyquan Gibbs and Reilly Walsh. The players found a way to get the game close pull it out at end of the game.”

Once again NJIT displayed a lot of tenacity going on a 13-2 run over the next three minutes including a trifecta from Cooks with a minute left to give the Highlanders their first lead of the contest. A nip and tuck wound toward its thrilling conclusion as Cooks hit a pair of free throws to put NJIT back up with less than 30 seconds on the clock.

Down again 58-57 with less than five seconds to go and in danger of falling to 0-3 on the season, the team turned to a veteran player in senior Shyquan Gibbs (9 points) to be the hero. Driving the lane and hoisting up a shot that found the bottom of the net with 0.5 seconds left. A last-minute desperation shot from Cornel fell short setting off a jubilant celebration at the midcourt with the entire team. Souleymane Diakite registered a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. The Highlanders shot a sizzling 55 percent in the second half, a perfect 12 for 12 from the free throw line for the game and won the points in the paint 30 to 26 and points off turnover 14 to 7.

Shyquan Gibbs on the victory and game-winning shot, “It’s just good to get one under our belt. Coach Raff (Assistant Coach John Rafferty) came in and talked to us saying you have to cut it down every four minutes and said if we get it down to 10 we’re going to win the game and said that before the half started. Zach made a bunch of big time plays and shouldered the load offensively for us. San Antonio (Brinson) held their leading scorer to five points, Reilly made a bunch of big plays and Souley had a huge impact with a double-double.”

“I thank my teammates and coaches for having faith in me. Down the line everyone in the gym though the ball was going to Zach and leading us the whole night but Coach (Kennedy) drew up the play for me and having faith and ability in me as a senior. In the moment things happened, shot went up and in and everybody is going crazy and we get our first win of the season. It’s like a domino effect, you knock the first domino down and all the others follow. We had the sour taste of losing and now the great taste of winning and build upon that. We learned a lot lessons with resilience and power when we put our collective efforts together.”

“Everyone on our team is important even if we don’t touch the court in games. If we made a big shot, everyone jumps out of their seats and cheers and goes crazy. Every last one of us has that chip on our shoulder. We were not highly recruited guys out of high school and very much looked upon coming after us recruiting wise. We want to prove to the world and everybody else we deserve the recognition and not matter how big, tall or strong you are we are all going to come and fight together.”

Head Coach Brian Kennedy on the win, “All the credit goes to the players and ones on the court performing. The first three games of the year to start on the road with two teams in Colgate and Providence got Top 25 pre-season votes is really difficult and to finish up on the road against a really well-coached Cornell team that finished in top four of their conference last year and the Ivy League was the 11th ranked conference in the country and a really good road win. Coach Boeheim’s son (Jimmy Boeheim) son is a tremendous player and our number one goal was to limit him. He had five straight 20 point games heading into our game.”

“Shyquan is a coach’s dream, has a 3.8 or 3.9 GPA, omni present on the campus and giving back to the community and such a great kid. The thing going into that play Cornell would be so focused on Zach Cooks and wanted to use him as little bit of a decoy and get Shyquan using his speed and quickness in moving towards the basket. San Antonio and Souleymane set up great screens and Reilly did a great job delivering the ball to Shyquan and he figured it out with the hardest part slicing in between two defenders and getting up the shot to go. So proud and happy for Shyquan, he gives his heart and soul to this program on and off the court and NJIT community and couldn’t be more appropriate for him to hit the winning basket.”

Next up for the Highlanders (1-2) is the home opener  against Wagner College (1-2) at the Wellness and Events Center on Saturday with tip-off set for 2 p.m. “We have been on the road three straight games and traveling so it’s going to be great back home, Kennedy said. We take on a very tough and physical Wagner team. Bashir Mason does a great job with a defensive minded team and we will have our hands full so we’re going one game at a time and looking forward to being at our home in front of our fans at the WEC Center.”

Gibbs on the home opener, “This is a big time thing for me, last first home game for me at the WEC and kind of personal for me the first time we opened up the WEC and we lost to a good Wagner team on opening day and kind of a heartbreaker and now coming back for this season’s opener a really good team.”

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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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