NEWARK, N.J. – The week that was had its share of drama. Gonzaga lost its unblemished record. Villanova kept on rolling. UCLA scored a big road win at Arizona…and so on.
Almost forgotten, but significant just the same, was a final home game. On Thursday at NJIT, this was not simply your traditional Senior Night – the time to thank those exiting the program and wish them well in future endeavors. On this evening the Highlanders were also playing a final game in their Fleisher Gym.
Next season they will be playing in a larger, modern Wellness Center right on campus walking distance from Fleisher. The home court they were saying goodbye to played a significant part in NJIT basketball history. From the time they made the move to Division I, the early struggles followed by acceptance into conference affiliation and a move to mid-major respectability. During this time the gym in the middle of the Newark campus was home.
On Thursday evening, NJIT closed the doors figuratively with a thrilling 88-87 victory over USC Upstate. It was a game to remember, not only for the result but the manner it was achieved.
“Senior Day can be good and bad,” NJIT coach Brian Kennedy said afterward in his office. “The seniors want to go out scoring 25 points and getting 10 rebounds. They can be overanxious and nervous over the night, at the same time.”
NJIT trailed by 16 at the half. The Spartans’ Michael Buchanan, a seven-foot center (a game-high 27 on the night), was a problem inside. In addition, Upstate was hitting from the perimeter.
At the half, Kennedy and staff made a few defensive adjustments, specifically to slow the perimeter shooters. Upstate finished with eight treys, but only two came in the second half. Offensively, the Highlanders attacked Upstate from the wings rather than the perimeter with outstanding effectiveness.
“At halftime our mood in the locker room was good,” Kennedy said. “These kids do not get down. Our kids for the most part have been under recruited and play with a ‘chip’. They want to prove something They are a very resilient group.”
NJIT placed five in double digits. Anthony Tarke came off the bench to lead with 18. On the special night a senior, 6-5 guard Tim Coleman added 15, including some clutch plays in the stretch. Ironically it all came down to a freshman. Shyquan Gibbs, a product of prep power St. Anthony’s, canned two decisive free throws with six seconds to play.
The final buzzer brought a celebration fans did not want to end. The night was a send off not just to the seniors but a host of memories created in the modest (1,500 capacity) gym with the less than perfect lighting. Regardless, it was a place to affectionately call home. The team, coaches, AD Lenny Kaplan and even school President Joel Bloom were willing to join in.
As members of the Atlantic Sun, NJIT plays in a conference tournament staged on the home floor of the higher seed. As the seventh seed, NJIT would be on the road for the duration.
On this evening the Highlanders (11-19 and 3-11 in conference) who lost their outstanding player Damon Lynn to a season ending injury in January, had reason to celebrate, as well as reflect on the place they called home as they first tested the waters of D I and found respectability.