NEWARK, N.J. – With just under four seconds remaining in his team’s first-ever Division I postseason appearance, New Jersey Institute of Technology forward Tim Coleman calmly stepped to the free throw line when the boisterous Estelle and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center’s standing room only crowd of 1,303 rang out with a ‘NJ-IT’ chant,which would soon echo throughout the facility.
As the sophomore received the basketball, head coach Jim Engles walked down his bench, high-fiving every member of his program that he could reach.
“It was such a great environment,” Engles said. “You walk out and the band is playing and the place is crowded and it’s just packed; it was just a lot of fun.”
Just moments prior, Coleman was fouled after his rebound of a Matt Miller three-point attempt put the finishing touches on NJIT’s, come-from-behind, 84-77 victory over the University of New Hampshire in the opening round of the 2015 Collegeinsider.com Tournament.
“I felt that my class, and the people here, we could do special things,” Coleman said of NJIT’s heralded men’s basketball sophomore class. “Coach Engles is a great coach and he has so many good things going on in his head. I have no idea how he comes up with all of those plays and defenses but it works.”
After New Hampshire’s Ronnel Jordan sank a buzzer-beating three-pointer to end the first half, pushing the NJIT deficit to five, the Highlanders outscored New Hampshire 52-40 in the second half, pulling away down the stretch from a game New Hampshire team, who was making its first-ever postseason appearance.
NJIT’s second half outburst was led by sophomore Damon Lynn, who scored 16 of his game-high 25 points in the second frame.
After New Hampshire opened up a 52-47 lead, NJIT (19-11), who took its first lead of the game at 16:28 of the second half, went on a 13-0 run over a 4:04 stretch, takingthe lead for good on a basket by senior Odera Nweke with 10:45 remaining in the game. Nweke capped the run with a baseline dunk that brought the crowd to its feet.
“The way we played – we got down early and we came back and toughed it out,” Engles added. “It’s a good win for these guys. I’m really proud of them.”
With the victory, for one night, the nation’s lone independent team is now the only team in the nation with a postseason victory.
Coleman, one of four double-digit scorers for the Highlanders, added a career-high 23 points to go along with 7 rebounds and a game-high 3 blocks.
Junior point guard Ky Howard came off the bench for the Highlanders, and in just his second game back after a long absence from the NJIT lineup because of an injury, nearly had a triple-double; with 10 points, a game-high 11 rebounds and a game-high 7 assists in 31 minutes.
“I’ve always said that these guys are my family, [and] my brothers, and if I can help them by any means necessary, then I can,” Howard said. “Once I felt that I had the confidence to help them on the court, I went to the coaching staff and I let them know. It was a slow process, but it was all worth it for that experience tonight.”
“I don’t think about the injury anymore,” he continued. Once I am in between those lines, I only think about how I can help my family.”
“I knew he was coming back,” said junior guard Winfield Willis. “I know his personality. He has always persevered through everything. That’s how we are. It’s a testament to our win tonight – we were down tonight and persevered.”
Willis, who contributed 16 points to the Highlander effort,led a strong team performance on the line, where the Highlanders made 26 of their 36 free throw attempts (72.2%), including 21 of 27 (77.8%) in the second half. Willis made all ten of his attempts in the game, including eight in the second half.
“There’s a rumor going around that I don’t miss,” Winfield joked. “So that’s what is going to happen. I don’t miss.”
New Hampshire only attempted 19 free throws in the entire game.
New Hampshire (19-13, 11-5 America East), who reached the finals of the America East tournament, was without America East Rookie of the Year Tanner Leissner and America East All-Defensive Team member Joe Bramanti, was led by Jaleen Smith, who had 17 points, leading five double-digit scorers.
New Hampshire, who shot 44.4% for the game, opened the game with a 10-0 run, forcing Engles to call a timeout to settle down his Highlanders.
“We really didn’t do anything wrong,” Engles reflected. “They made tough shots. They came out and were really focused. We were able to weather the storm a little bit.”
Following the timeout, off a set play, Lynn made the first of his six, three-pointers, recording the first Division I postseason points for the Highlanders.
After Lynn put NJIT on the board, the Highlander offense settled into more of a rhythm, but every Highlander run was answered by a New Hampshire three-pointer. UNH made seven first half threes, led by Daniel Dixon, who was a perfect 3-3 from behind the arc in the first half.
After allowing New Hampshire to shoot 53.8% from behind the arc in the first half, the Highlanders clamped down defensively in the second half, forcing seven consecutive misses from behind the arc before New Hampshire made four consecutive threes in a 2:00 stretch, after the Highlanders opened up a 13-point lead after a pair of Lynn free throws with 2:09 remaining.
“I thought they made hard shots [in the first half],” Engles said. “I thought that that we were there [defensively] and they’re a really good team. I don’t think we panicked. We did a good job taking their run and we executed really well midway through the second half to get some separation. It was a really good postseason game; it was a good college game.”
NJIT worked especially hard to create a true home-court advantage for its first Division I postseason game, with a concerted on-campus advertising and social media marketing effort.
Their efforts certainly paid off as the crowd, led by the United Marching Band from the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts in nearby East Orange, New Jersey, and a sea of red shirts, were a factor all night long for the Highlanders, creating a near-deafening environment.
After the teams shook hands, before the victorious Highlanders made their way to their locker room to celebrate, the Highlanders saluted the near-capacity crowd in what has now become a postgame tradition at the Fleisher Athletic Center.
The Highlanders will learn of their next opponent in the next few days and the opportunity does present itself for a second postseason home game. In the short term, Engleswill continue to operate as business as usual.
“We just take it one game at a time,” Engles said. “It’s been a big stepping stone year for our program. We beat a ranked team and we won a postseason game. If you asked me that seven years ago, I would be in a padded room somewhere in upstate New York.”
“We’ve done some special things and we need to keep it going. This is a great stepping-stone – it’s a great experience for [the players] and a learning opportunity for us as we go forward.”