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NJIT’s late rally falls short in 78-74 loss to North Alabama

After a furious rally in the second half, NJIT fell to Atlantic Sun Conference foe North Alabama.

After experiencing a mixed bag of results on a two-game road trip in Florida last week, the NJIT Highlanders managed to keep an upbeat attitude. They edged Florida Gulf Coast 56-54 on a late jump shot from Zach Cooks, who scored a game-high 25 points. The Highlanders returned to the Wellness and Events Center to face a North Alabama team that was under. 500 but tied with NJIT in the conference standings.

The Highlanders wasted no time jumping out to an early 8-1 advantage four minutes into the game. Up by eight points at 15-7 with less than 14 minutes left in the half, the Lions ripped off a 6-0 run with back-to-back trifectas. NJIT managed to regroup and increase the advantage up to five points at 21-16. North Alabama answered with another 6-0 spurt to take their first lead of the contest with eight minutes remaining in the first half.

The Highlanders were in a back-and-forth tussle with the Lions as the lead changed hands several times as the first half drew to a close. Zach Cooks and San Antonio Brinson were the primary offensive sources of offense for NJIT combining for 23 points.

North Alabama countered with the duo of Jamari Blackmon and Payton Youngblood tallying 21 points, including knocking down four triples as the Lions ended the half on a 5-0 run to lead 38-35 at halftime. The foul-plagued first half ended with the refs calling 27 fouls. North Alabama outscored the Highlanders in bench scoring 18-2, leading in rebounds 23-18 and points in the paint 16-8.

Head Coach Brian Kennedy on the first half: “We let No. 14 (Payton Youngblood) came in and hit two three’s and close the gap there. We went over it numerous times. That’s what he does. Once a kid makes one and sees it go through, he gets in a rhythm. You never foul a three-point shooter, and we did that twice tonight.”

In the second half, the Lions extended the margin to 49-41 with 15 minutes to go. NJIT responded behind the aggressive play of San Antonio Brinson, who scored 15 of his game-high 25 points in the second half. He was also a perfect 8-of-8 from the charity stripe. Limited to three points at halftime, Shyquan Gibbs caught fire as well pouring in 15 points despite picking up his fourth foul with eight minutes to go. Trimming the deficit to one point on a couple of occasions would be as close as the Highlanders would get as North Alabama sank 8 out of 10 free throws in the last minute and half of the game to hold on for the 78-74 victory.

Zach Cooks finished up with 21 points. The Lions had four players in double figures led by Blackmon tallying 21 points. NJIT won the points off turnovers battle 22-7, points in the paint 36-26 and second-chance points 9-7. North Alabama controlled the fastbreak points 20-10 and bench points 24-3.

“The kids fought really hard down the end. We shot ourselves in the foot with some turnovers and some transition defense miscues and rebounding wise,” Kennedy said. “We let their kid No. 21 (Emmanuel Littles) get 14 rebounds tonight. We have to do a better job. We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance, but we have to win those home games.”

“San Antonio made some really nice plays on the offensive end. We were running some stuff at him and he got on a little bit of a run. It was good to see and him taking the ball to the basket. When he settles for jump shots, then you get a whim on whether it goes in or not. When he is driving the ball to the basket, getting fouled and going hard, it helps out his game out quite a bit.

“Zach has been great during this time and Shyquan has been one of the best guards in the league. He has not had one bad league game. He is fighting, knows that he has eight games remaining and leaving it out all on the court. Love the way he competes out there. He never says die and is all about the team and winning. He’s giving a great effort here in league play.”

The Highlanders (7-14, 4-4 ASUN) return to action on Thursday at the Wellness and Events Center facing off against North Florida with tip-off set for 7 p.m. NJIT won the first match-up back on January 11th 78-66. In that game, San Antonio Brinson scored not only a career-high but program-record 37 points.

“We have to buckle down. We let a couple of games slip through our hands here,” said Kennedy. “As a team, we have to decide what we want to do in the second half because there is certainly nobody we have faced in league play that we feel we can’t beat, but that’s talk and we have to do it on the court.”

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