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Zach Cooks career-high 34 points lifts NJIT past Quinnipiac in 1st round of Postseason Tournament

Playing in their third CIT ( Postseason Tournament), the NJIT Highlanders had a good reason to be a confident squad having reached the semifinals of the tournament in 2015 and 2016 and sporting an undefeated record of 6-0 at the Wellness and Events Center.

Facing off against Quinnipiac for the first time, NJIT would have to play without senior forward Abdul Lewis. Named to the 1st  Team All-ASUN (Atlantic Sun Conference) while averaging 13 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.

Despite the adversity, the Highlanders opened up with a lot of energy in the first half, racing out to a 12-4 advantage not even five minutes in. However, Quinnipiac stormed back to tie the contest up at 19-19 with about nine minutes remaining. After the Bobcats briefly took a 22-21 lead on a three-pointer from Aaron Robinson (11 points) with less than seven minutes left, senior guard Donovan Greer provided a spark off the bench connecting on back-to-back triples putting NJIT ahead 30-24.

Greer was not finished from beyond the arc burying another shot as the Highlanders led 37-33 at the break and connecting on seven trifecta’s. Meanwhile clamping down defensively, limiting a Quinnipiac team coming in ranked Top 15 nationally in three’s made to 3 of 10 shooting from three-point range.

“We were without Abdul Lewis, our first-team All-ASUN player but played a bunch of games without him at the beginning of the year and were successful,” said Head Coach Brian Kennedy. “I think our man-to-man offense provided a lot of opportunities for us and able to knock them down. They went to a zone and changes the complexion a little bit. We were not throwing the ball inside, trying to get the ball into the middle of the zone and in the corners and guys were able to step up and knock them down.”

“Donovan gave us a huge lift off the bench, 3 for 4 from three. He is a good shooter, if you watch him in practice is lights out, a senior and really came in and seized the opportunity and moment and made his shots. A great kid from down in Houston, Texas and just sticks with it.”

The Highlanders burst out of the locker room in the second half as sophomore guard Zach Cooks unleashed an offensive arsenal, pouring in 25 of his career-high 34 points, dropping 8 of 12 field goals, three treys and 6 of 8 from the charity stripe line as NJIT boosted the margin quickly to 58-41 with less than 12 minutes left.

“I tried to help my team anyway, with rebounding, assists, scoring and shooting the ball and come out and get a win for the team and crowd,” said Cooks. “I just take what the defense gives me, hit a couple of three’s and drove the lane. Free throws down the stretch are clutch in basketball period. After every practice we shoot 50 free throws and Coach (Kennedy) emphasizes it a lot and it pays off in a game. It’s a big post-season game, came up short in ASUN Tournament but have a chance to play basketball and make the most out of it.”

Up 70-52 after a lay-up by Cooks, the Highlanders appeared to have the game locked away but Qunnipiac’s offense woke up with leading scorer Cameron Young tallying 20 of his game-high 29 points while employing a stifling full-court press as the Bobcats went on a 14-3 run in a span of three and half minutes. With the margin down to 76-70 with less than two minutes remaining, it was clutch free shooting from junior guard Shyquan Gibbs and senior guard Diandre Wilson combining to sink 11 of 13 free throws including 10 of 11 in the final minute as NJIT (22-12) prevailed 92-81 and set a program record with their 22ndvictory of the season. Gibbs and Wilson each contributed 15 points apiece as the Highlanders shot 50 percent from the field, 46 percent from three-point line and knocked down 20 of 26 free throws.

“Zach is a tremendous player and had a great year,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know if it’s official at one point but he led the country in minutes. Our conference tournament is early so we had a little break and he was able to get some rest and energy back into his legs and body. Diandre is our best free throw shooter, missed the front end of a one and one but had confidence to get back him in and shoot the technical fouls and earned that. Shyquan had a lot of big shots especially at end of the shot clock.”

“Anytime you are facing a team in post-season play, there is a reason why they are a good team. We knew they would a run, full-court press and Young is a terrific player. We guarded him well but he made some tough shots and reason why he is averaging 23 points per game. We just had to hang in there, persevere, stay focused and complete the game.”

“We had been on the road quite a bit, seven games in 28 days, four different states and conference tournament down at Florida Gulf Coast. Good for us to be back home, get a game under our belt and appreciate the support from the university, President Bloom, Lenny Kaplan our Athletic Director.”

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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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