Head coach Jim Engles and NJIT celebrate second straight CIT semifinal appearance. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)
BY RAY FLORIANI
NEWARK, NJ - The quarterfinal round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament saw NJIT hosting UT-Arlington. The Mavericks, of the Sun Belt Conference, opened the season defeating Fordham. Additional victories of note included November wins at Memphis and Ohio State. Coach Scott Cross’ club advanced to the Sun Belt semifinals before being eliminated by Louisiana-Monroe.
NJIT was eliminated by Stetson in their Atlantic Sun postseason opener. After earning the CIT bid, the Highlanders defeated Army and Boston University. On this night, NJIT thrilled their fans who do not want to see this party end. The Highlanders edged UT Arlington, 63-60, to move on to the CIT semifinals for the second consecutive year.
First Half: The first five possessions saw the Highlanders score on their first trip on a Terrence Smith jumper in the lane. That was it. After two-and-a-half minutes, it was 2-0 NJIT. Shortly after this was written, the visiting Mavericks went on a 7-0 run. NJIT will run while UT-Arlington, a 73-possession team per KenPom, is determined to push the pace. Seven minutes in, the visiting Mavericks lead 11-2. NJIT is struggling to get anything going on their offensive end. The 12-minute timeout shows NJIT shooting 1-of-10 with a 13 offensive efficiency. The Highlanders start to find the range and enter the under-8 timeout down six. This much is evident: UTA loves to run, thus creating more possessions and opportunities for NJIT to come back. Given the start, NJIT went into the half in a lot better shape than the early minutes. Damon Lynn, who did so much damage in the win over BU, has 2 points on 0-for-5 shooting. The Highlanders also needed to cut down on their eight turnovers, a 22 percent turnover rate)
Halftime: UT-Arlington 30, NJIT 26
Possessions: UTA 37, NJIT 36
Offensive efficiency: UTA 81, NJIT 72
Second Half: NJIT comes out with energy looking to push the ball and dictate an uptempo approach on both offense and defense. The first four minutes go in favor of NJIT, 13-7. The Highlander lead is four at the 15-minute mark. Lynn hits a three at the eight-minute mark to break a 47-all tie. The game has gotten into more of a half court pace, but not due to fatigue. It is the stakes, the game in the balance necessitating a bit more offensive ‘caution.’ That, plus the fact that NJIT has gone zone, forcing UTA into some longer possessions. At the four-minute mark NJIT leads by five. Lynn, so quiet early, so deadly effective lately, is tied for team and game-high scoring honors with Ky Howard at 11 points. With 8.5 seconds left, NJIT leads by four. It will come down to the charity stripe as NJIT leads 61-60 with seven seconds left. Howard hits two free throws. A Drew Charles three attempt for UTA misses at the buzzer.
Final: NJIT 63, UT-Arlington 60
Possessions: UTA 69, NJIT 68
Offensive efficiency: NJIT 93, UTA 87
eFG%: NJIT 50, UTA 42
Free Throw Rate: NJIT 20, UTA 9
Offensive Rebound%: NJIT 20, UTA 41
Turnover Rate: NJIT 22, UTA 23
What UTA did well: Rebound. As NJIT coach Jim Engles noted, the Mavericks were very physical. They more than doubled NJIT in offensive rebound percentage, grabbing 17 boards on the offensive glass to the seven recorded by the Highlanders.
What NJIT did well: What they didn’t do: Panic. Trailing by double digits the first half, NJIT chipped away. After a fast start in the second half, they were right there and in a position to get the win.
NOTES: NJIT improves to 20-14 and travels to New York to face Columbia in the CIT semifinals on Easter Sunday. UTA finishes 24-11. The Highlanders had four in double figures. “Lynn is our main threat,” Engles said. “But when we pass and move as we did in the second half, we have a number of threats.”
NJIT’s offensive efficiency in the second half was 116. That is 29 better than the first twenty minutes, and illustrates what Engles was pointing out on offense.
Jalen Jones of UTA led all rebounders with 10, five of which came on the offensive glass. UTA did have a slight 24-20 edge in points in the paint. They did dominate second chance points 14-5, thanks to their work on the offensive glass.
Senior guard Emmanuel Tselentakis paced NJIT with six assists against zero turnovers in a solid 18 minutes.
NJIT coach Jim Engles: “This is great for our program. For the second straight year, we are in the College Insider semifinals. It is great to advance again and is the accumulation of what we have been building the past eight years. We didn’t play well at all the first half. At the end, we rebounded, hit some free throws and got some stops. I think we started the game nervous. The first 90 seconds of the second half, we came out aggressive. At halftime, we regrouped. We are a much better team when we pass and move. The second half, we did that and not just stand around, that was a big difference for us offensively.”
On Damon Lynn: “They are a big physical team and played him tough. Once we as a team started to move more, that opened things up for him and he was more effective.”
On UTA: “KenPom had them the highest remaining ranked team in the field. Their top player (Kevin Hervey, 18.1 PPG) has been out since midseason. But this is a really good team with wins over Memphis and Ohio State to their credit.”
On the significance of the win: “Last year, it was for ourselves. This year, it was for us and representing our Atlantic Sun Conference. That means a lot. For the second straight year, we are the last team playing in New Jersey.”