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Furious second-half rally falls just short for NJIT in regular season opener at Colgate

Coming off a season in which they went 22-13 overall, 8-8 in the ASUN (Atlantic Sun Conference), the NJIT Highlanders were looking to improve on that success. However, it would not be easy for the Highlanders who lost four players to graduation in Abdul Lewis, Diandre Wilson, Donovan Greer and Mohamed Bendary.

Returning this season for NJIT are leading scorer Zach Cooks who averaged 17.6 points as a sophomore last season, the third highest in school history. Also returning is senior Shyquan Gibbs who contributed 8.6 points per game last season.

This year’s team features a majority of underclassmen with six freshman and three sophomores lining the roster. An unbalanced 2019-20 season with 12 road games and 17 away games, the schedule makers did the Highlanders no favors to start the season with four out the first six games on the road.

Gibbs on this year’s team, “From an expectation standpoint you want to do better than the year before. The expectations are really high for this year’s group and coming off the year we had and very successful. We lost a lot from last year, two starters and two key bench players so it’s going to be a lot of weight on the underclassmen this year to show the underclassmen the ropes and how to get adjusted to the college game quickly.”

“As for us scoring everyone will have to pitch in to fill the voids left by Abdul, Diandre, Mo and Don and it’s on each and everyone for us to pool in and up our scoring. Success does not come all at once, take it one game at a time and as far as the road games last year we set a the record for most road wins in NJIT history. Road games are something we are adjusted to, go in their open minded and lean on each other and coaching staff. My first year of playing college basketball was Coach Kennedy’s first year at NJIT so we have been able to grow together and become more successful as time has gone along and I want to keep that going.”

Facing off against Colgate in the regular season opener at Cotterell Court in Hamilton, New York, Cooks had the hot shooting hand early in the first tallying 11 points and was matched in a scoring duel with Colgate guard Jordan Burns who registered 10 points. NJIT managed to take an 18-10 lead at the 10 minute mark but the Raiders stormed back with an 8-0. A very physical and rugged contest that featured plenty of trash talking among the players. With the Highlanders falling into almost a four-minute scoring drought enable Colgate to close on another 8-0 run to grab a 41-32 advantage heading into the locker room.

The Raiders were sizzling from the field shooting near 60 percent while NJIT shot 42 percent and 4 of 14 from beyond the arc. Colgate dominated the boards 19 to 11, points in the paint 20-10 and converting 16 layups.

Not even four minutes into the second half it would get much worse for the Highlanders with the Raiders going on a 11-0 burst to open up a 55-36 margin. Just when you thought the game was finished NJIT answered back with a thunderous response as Colgate leading scorer Rapolas Ivanauskas (24 points) exited the game with four fouls with less than 10 minutes remaining.

The trio of Cooks, Gibbs and San Antonio Brinson caught fire offensively allowing the Highlanders to climb back into the game. Gibbs made it a 64-57 Colgate lead with nine minutes to go draining a trifecta. NJIT kept pressing forward playing inspired defense as Souleymayne Diakite tap in tied up the game with five minutes left. Gibbs put the Highlanders up for the first time since the 10-minute mark of the first half converting a three-point play just about a minute later.

The back and forth action continued as the Raiders charged back on a 5-0 run highlighted by a trey from Ivanauskas with under three minutes left on the clock. NJIT refused to throw in the towel with Cooks burying a jumper with less than two minutes remaining. The Highlanders had multiple opportunities to tie the game up late but the ball just did not bounce their way as Colgate hit five out of six free throws down the stretch for the 80-75 victory.

Cooks finished with a game high 23 points while Brinson provided 15 and Gibbs chipped in with 14. The Highlanders shot 50 percent from the field in the second half and 46.2 overall and defensively clamped down holding Colgate to 40 percent.

NJIT returns to the hardwood court on Saturday afternoon at Providence College with tip-off set for 4:30 p.m. at the Dunkin Donuts Center.

Gibbs on playing national television, “I think the things that NJIT has been able to do before I got here and afterwards is change the name and brand of NJIT and just made it bigger and ASUN one of the most competitive mid-majors in the country. A big positive for the coaching staff and student-athletes they bring in so that’s a huge testament to them.”

“You always want to be in the talk with other major schools in your area and last year we kind of showed the state (New Jersey) we would keep up with the teams in terms of schedule and record and either number one or two last year with our record in terms of schools in our area and we were very competitive.”

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Sunil Sunder Raj

Sunil is the Rockland Boulders Beat Writer for DoubleGSports.com and also covers North Jersey High School Sports
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