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Gritty second-half effort by NJIT comes up just short in 82-75 loss to North Florida

A week removed from a difficult 78-74 defeat to North Alabama, the NJIT Highlanders men’s basketball team returned to the Wellness and Events Center to take on on North Florida (15-10, 8-2 ASUN). Not even seven minute into the game, the Ospreys seized control by jumping out to a 20-8 advantage. The Highlanders offense that was sluggish at the start got into a flow, going on a 8-3 run to trim the deficit to 23-16 at the 11 minute mark.

North Florida continued to shoot lights out from the perimeter at 80 percent while controlling the points in the paint and points off turnovers that increased the lead up to double digits at 30-20 with seven minutes left. Keeping NJIT in the game were the play of San Antonio Brinson and Reilly Walsh. Having scored a career high and program record 37 points when the two teams’ met on January 11, Brinson did not cool off pouring in 12 of his 14 points on the night while Walsh dropped in all of his 11 points.

A late 10-3 run from the Ospreys expanded the margin to 50-38 at halftime. NJIT had no answer in containing Wajid Aminu, pumping in 15 of his game high 21 points and Carter Hendricksen netting 10 of his 19 points. North Florida ended up shooting 72 percent from the floor, leading in points in paint 24-18 and bench points 11-0.

NJIT Head Coach Brian Kennedy on the first half, “We started the game off very slow, Trey (Byron Breland III) and gave us some really good energy and defensively. We were able to get back in it but the last three minutes of the first half there were some mental errors and they took the lead back up from there.”

“They play a different type of zone and protect the three-point line and dare you to throw into it in the short corners and that being said we were effective in getting the ball into the high post to San Antonio and Reilly was doing a good job getting open in the short corners.”

Emotions would boil over at the end of the half with Kennedy assessed a technical foul. North Florida started out the second half with a quick 6-0 spurt and the lead would only grow from that point. Holding a commanding 65-47 advantage with less than 13 minutes remaining it appeared the Highlanders were finished. Displaying grit and determination, NJIT responded with a 9-2 run that cut the gap to 67-56 with eight and half minutes left.

Even with San Antonio Brinson fouling out of the contest at the eight-minute mark, the Highlanders kept on surging forward due to the contributions of Zach Cooks and Souleymayne Diakite. Cooks totaling 11 of his game 19 points while Diakite delivered his fourth double-double of the season 13 points and 15 rebounds.

Down 69-58 at the seven and half minute mark, the Highlanders stepped up the pressure with a 13-5 run. A lay-up from Cooks with one-minute left reduced the deficit to 74-71. However, that would be as close as NJIT would get as North Florida guard J.T. Escobar drained a clutch trifecta with 47 seconds to go. The Ospreys were efficient at the free throw line sinking seven out of eight shots that led to the 82-75 victory.

Brian Kennedy on the loss, “North Florida is a good team, they beat Southern Miss home and away. They are in first place in our league for a reason. We played them down there and beat them and they were ready to take on us this time. Hendrickson is a got a great game for a perimeter game and Aminu is a very active guy. I remember when he was the Freshman of the Year in the league. A really hard worker and we didn’t give him enough resistance especially in the first half. You give up some dump offs to protect the three but in the first half he was just catching and scoring on us.”

“The one thing about our team is it always fights and hangs in there. From the beginning it’s hard for the younger kids to understand it’s a team game and you never know when your number is going to be called. It’s hard in life to know what exactly your role is but basketball is a fluid sport and roles change and during the course of the game and game-to-game and match-up wise. I was really happy with Diego (Willis), Trey and Xavier (Mayo). They were able to give us good minutes.”

NJIT (7-15, 4-5 ASUN) returns to the hardwood court on Saturday afternoon at the Wellness and Events Center against Jacksonville (11-14, 4-6 ASUN). The last time the teams’ squared off on January 9 the Dolphins won 68-52. “We did not play well down there at Jacksonville but we will be ready to play on Saturday, said Kennedy.”

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