NJIT Cherishing the Chance to Dance

By Kevin Sweeney

All they ever wanted was a chance.

For most college basketball players, coaches, and fans, the ultimate goal is reaching the NCAA Tournament.  Just a few years ago, NJIT was about as far from that goal as possible. After the collapse of the Great West Conference after the 2012-2013 athletic year, the Highlanders were once again without a conference.  The lack of a conference from which to receive an auto-bid into the NCAA Tournament left NJIT independent once again, with no real hope to hold onto.

However, the Highlanders now have something that would have been unthinkable just 2 years ago: a chance to dance.

After a 2014-2015 season in which the Highlanders shocked the world with a win over Michigan as well as a semi-final run in the CIT, NJIT moved in the Atlantic Sun conference. The move has put them in position to finally make a push for their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.  The Highlanders have made the move to the A-Sun in style, winning 6 of their final 8 conference games to earn the 2 seed in the conference tournament.  As a result, the Highlanders will host their quarter-final and, should they win, semi-final games during the tournament.

Junior guard Damon Lynn was excited about being able to bring conference tournament games the Highlander faithful at Fleisher Athletic Center, saying “The students, our piers, our friends and family, they come to support and I don’t think it gets louder anywhere else in the country.”

While NJIT has a difficult road to fulfill their ultimate dream of reaching the NCAA Tournament, the Highlanders are just excited for the opportunity, one which many of the players never would have thought possible when they committed to come play there.

“It hasn’t really set in yet.” Ky Howard, a senior guard averaging nearly 13 points per game for the Highlanders. “It feels like a movie, so, I’m just enjoying the ride and everything.”

Looking at that road, the Highlanders begin their journey on Tuesday night against Stetson at 7:30pm. NJIT swept the season series with the Hatters. A win would give the Highlanders another home game on Thursday night against the winner of the Jacksonville-Lipscomb tilt.  The toughest match-up for the Highlanders would be a championship game showdown against North Florida.  The Ospreys have owned NJIT this season, dominating them in both meetings this season.  That potential game would be played in Jacksonville at UNF Arena.

NJIT head coach Jim Engles stressed that he wanted his players to treasure the moment, saying “I just want them to enjoy the experience.  I just want them to understand how far the program has come, how much of an effect they all had on the program, and to enjoy it.”

No matter what the outcome of this week’s conference tournament, it is clear that the Highlanders are certainly headed in the right direction.

Clareth leads Siena past Quinnipiac to Clinch 3rd Seed in MAAC Tournament

By Kevin Sweeney
Nico Clareth had 24 points as Siena dominated Quinnipiac 80-65 to finish the regular season in style. The win clinched the 3rd seed in the conference tournament for the Saints, who will begin tournament play Saturday night at 7. 
After slow starts put the Saints behind the 8-ball early in their last 2 games, Siena made sure that the trend didn’t continue today, starting the game off on a 12-0 run to set the tone early. It was Clareth who started led the early charge for the Saints, scoring 8 of the points in the run. Those 8 points eclipsed his point totals from either of his previous 2 games. The Saints needed the boost from Clareth to replace the production of Lavon Long, who didn’t play today as punishment for missing practice on Saturday. The strong start propelled the Saints to a 45-27 lead at halftime. 

After a fast-paced first half, the game slowed down significantly in the second half. Both teams looked to pound the ball down low whenever possible in the 2nd half. Siena forward Javion Ogunyemi had 14 points in the second period after scoring just 3 in the first half. The Bobcats had more success offensively in the second half, but each push was quickly stopped by a Siena run of their own. The outcome was never in doubt, as the Saints’s lead was over 20 for much of the half. 

Another bright spot for the Saints was the play of junior point guard Marquis Wright. Wright had his best game since returning from injury on February 19, scoring 14 points, grabbing 6 rebounds, and making an impact defensively with 4 steals. If the guard duo of Clareth and Wright can compliment the strong post duo of Brett Bisping and Ogunyemi, Siena will be very tough team to beat in the conference tournament. 

Before the game, Siena honored seniors Ryan Oliver and Imoh Silas. Silas, a little-used center, received loud applauses each time he entered or checked out of the game. 
As for Oliver, Siena coach Jimmy Patsos expressed gratitude for Oliver’s contributions this season, saying “When Marquis [Wright] went down, if it wasn’t for Ryan Oliver, I don’t know where we would be.”
Quinnipiac was led by Abdulai Bundu, who had 14 points and and 6 boards. Chaise Daniels & Gio McLean each added 10 for the Bobcats. Quinnipiac will be relegated to opening round play in the MAAC tournament, playing at either 5 or 7pm Thursday depending on other outcomes tonight. 

Gonzaga Survives Wild Finish To Beat BYU

By Kevin Sweeney

3 chances. 

Those words will stick with BYU fans for awhile after tonight’s matchup with Gonzaga. The Cougars had 3 possessions in the final 30 seconds with chances to tie or take the lead, but were unable to capitalize, falling in heartbreaking fashion to Gonzaga 71-68 on Saturday night in Provo.  

The game went back and forth in the first half, but a 14-0 run allowed the Zags to take a 3 point lead into halftime. Senior forward Kyle Wiltjer keyed the run for Gonzaga, scoring 6 points during the stretch en route to a half-leading 13 points. 

In the second half, Gonzaga began to distance themselves, pushing their lead to 12 with just under 10 minutes to go in regulation. However, the game changed in BYU’s favor after the under-8 media timeout. The Cougars slowly chipped away at the deficit, eventually cutting the Gonzaga lead to just 2 with 1:05 to go. 

The final moments of the game were absolutely wild. The Cougars got a stop on D, but freshman guard Nick Emery missed a 3 and freshman forward Zac Seljaas couldn’t get a tip-in to fall. The Cougars fouled forward Domantas Sabonis, who missed both free throws to keep BYU alive. Emery got a clean look from 3, but the shot rimmed out, and the game appeared over. But Sabonis pushed off trying to get open for the inbounds pass, fouling out of the game and giving BYU life. The Cougars tried to inbound the ball underneath the basket to senior guard Kyle Collinsworth, but he was unable to handle the pass, and the Zags escaped with the win. 

Collinsworth expressed excitement for a potential rematch with the Zags in the WCC Tournament next weekend, saying “We’re going to be MORE hungry because we lost tonight.”

However, Gonzaga as plenty to be enthusiastic about going into the conference tournament. The emergence of sophomore guard Silas Melson could be just the extra piece they need to put themselves over the top. Already having one of the best low-post tandems in the country in Wiltjer and Sabonis, the rise of another contributing guard would be huge. After a career-high 18 points in their last game, Melson added 13 points tonight. 

Both teams go in as contenders into next weekend’s conference tournament. BYU will go in as the 3rd seed, while Gonzaga will own the 2nd seed. The tournament appears to be all-important to both teams, as BYU will need to win it to reach the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga could be on the outside looking in if they stumble in the conference tournament too. Expect a wild weekend in Las Vegas. 

Late Push Helps Iona Blow Past Manhattan

By Kevin Sweeney

Iona used a dominant final 11 minutes to earn a hard-fought 86-73 win over Manhattan on Friday night in a game that was closer than the score shows. A.J English led 5 players in double figures for Iona with 23 points. 

In front of a packed house at Draddy Gymnasium, the Jaspers had the home crowd rocking early. They started the game on a 20-5 run in the first 6 minutes of the first half. They were able to use their patented high-intensity full-court press to bother the Gaels on the offensive end, forcing the Gaels to turn the ball over 7 times in that early stretch. It was the brilliance of junior forward Rich Williams that fueled the Jaspers’s offensive attack in the first half. Williams scored 24 points in the first half alone, including 4-5 from beyond the arc. 

The second half was a different story for the Gaels. It started in the exact opposite way that the first half began. Iona scored the first 8 points of the half to get their first lead of the game 2 and a half minutes into the 2nd period of play. After the teams traded buckets for a few minutes, Iona began to break away as the game wound down. From the 11:17 mark in the second half on, Iona outscored Manhattan 25-14 to stretch a close 61-59 game to what would appear to be a blowout.  

Williams set a career high with 27 points for the Jaspers, but was held to only 3 in the second half. Zane Waterman had a double-double for Manhattan with 18 points and 10 rebounds. It was English who led the way for Iona, knocking down 6 3’s for Iona. They also got 16 points from center Jordan Washington. 

For Manhattan, tonight marked the final home game for what will go down as one of the best senior classes in Manhattan history. The class of guards RaShawn Stores and Shane Richards combined for over 2,000 points. They have also won 70 games in Manhattan uniforms and have reached 2 straight NCAA Tournaments. 

The win by the Gaels keeps the pressure on Monmouth, moving within a half game of the Hawks for first place in the MAAC. Manhattan, who are already locked into having to play a fourth game at the MAAC Tournament, falls to 9-10 in MAAC play. They can clinch the 6th seed with a win over Rider Sunday or a Rider loss tonight vs Monmouth. 

Both teams conclude the regular season on Sunday. The Gaels will have a home matchup with Canisius, while Manhattan travels to New Jersey to take on Rider. 

Hofstra Stages Second Half Comeback to Knock Off UNC-Wilmington

By Kevin Sweeney

Hofstra came back from a 16 point halftime deficit and withstood 3 UNCW chances on the final possession to earn an important win over UNC-Wilmington 70-69 on Thursday night. The win draws the Pride even with UNCW in a tie for 1st place in the CAA. 

In a game that could have clinched the CAA title for the Seahawks, UNCW came out strong in the first half, using a 9-1 run to stretch their lead to 11 early in the first half. The first half got out of control for the Pride, as they shot a very poor 8-26 from the field in the first half. Soon, the Pride had dug themselves into a hole that would be difficult to get out of, as they trailed 41-25 on the road at halftime. 

From the start, it was a different game in the second half. The Pride started the half strong, quickly cutting the lead to 10 in the opening 4 minutes of the half. It was senior guard  Juan’ya Green who led the charge for the Pride in the second half. After scoring just 3 points in the first half, Green scored 15 in the second half. He was huge in the final moments, knocking down a huge triple with under a minute to go to cut the deficit to one and then made 2 foul shots on their ensuing offensive possession to give the Pride their first lead since score was 9-7 with 14:52 to go in the first  half. 

For Hofstra, Ameen Tanksley scored 18 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. Sophomore center Rokas Gustys had another dominant performance on the inside, adding 12 points and pulling down 21 rebounds. The Pride moved to 21-8 for the season and 13-4 in conference play. 

The Seahawks were led by sophomore guard Jordon Talley, who scored 16 points of the bench. Junior center C.J. Gettys had 10 points and 9 boards, but fouled out. UNCW fell to 21-7 and 13-4 in the league. 

The Pride return to action on Saturday at home vs Charleston.  UNCW will conclude the regular season with a home affair with Towson on Saturday. 

Army Outlasts Boston University For 5th Straight Win

By Kevin Sweeney

The Black Knights are rolling. 

Army pulled out an 80-71 win over Boston University on Tuesday night to stretch their win streak to 5 games. The win moves Army within just a half game of Navy and Colgate for 4th in the Patriot League. 

The Black Knights got strong games from the senior forward duo of Tanner Plomb and Kevin Ferguson. Plomb had 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Ferguson had his second straight double-double, scoring 18 points and snatching 14 rebounds. Ferguson scored his 1,000th career point in the game. 

In a game that was close throughout, it was Army who was able to take control in the late stages of the contest. In the final seven minutes, the Black Knights outscored the Terriers 20-10 to turn around a 61-60 deficit into an 80-71 victory. In that stretch, Army looked to their seniors to lead the way. Their starting line-up of 5 seniors scored all of Army’s points in the final 7 minutes of the game. 

For the Terriers, junior guard Eric Fanning led the way with 20 points.  Nick Havener didn’t score a point, but had 15 rebounds. In his first game back from injury, Eric Johnson had 12 points of the bench. However, the Terriers suffered another injury early in the second half, when freshman guard Kyle Foreman limped off the floor with an ankle injury. Later, Foreman was seen on crutches. If he is lost for any stretch of time, it would be a big blow to the Terriers. Foreman has averaged nearly 10 points and 4 assists. 

Army continues to be an interesting team to watch as the season heads down the home stretch. Army had a strong start to the season, but lost a lot of games when Tanner Plomb went down with an injury. Now, the Black Knights are seemingly returning to their early-season form. 

Army will look to continue their strong play when they take on Lehigh on Saturday for senior day to close the regular season. Boston University will try to rebound when they play Holy Cross on Saturday. 

Teams In Transition: A Look at Teams In The Process of Gaining Full D-1 Status

By Kevin Sweeney

Currently, there are 5 schools who are in the process of transitioning from Division 2 to Division 1 athletics.  This shift can be huge for a school, as it boosts athletic department income as well as allows the school to get more public attention through the media. However, the programs are forced into a 4-year grace period during which they cannot compete in NCAA-sponsored postseason play. This means that they aren’t allowed to participate in their conference tournament, NCAA Tournament, or the NIT.  The lack of a chance to participate in the Big Dance, a dream of most young players, can be a huge roadblock in recruiting.  Let’s take a look at the 5 schools and see how they have performed during their grace period.

Northern Kentucky– Northern Kentucky is in the final year of their transition to full D-1 status. The Norse have already switched conferences in their first 4 seasons, moving to the Horizon League from their original conference, the Atlantic Sun, starting in the fall of 2015. NKU hasn’t enjoyed much success since re-classifying, as they have yet to finish with a .500 winning percentage in D-1 competition.  They fired coach Dave Bezold in the off-season after 25 years with the university, 11 of which as the head coach.  This season hasn’t been any better.  The Norse are 9-18 overall, posting a 5-11 mark in Horizon League play.

UMASS-Lowell– Since joining the America East Conference and beginning Division 1 play in fall of 2013, the River Hawks have been fairly average.  They placed 5th in their conference in 2013-14, 6th in 2014-15, and appear headed for 5th again in 2015-16.  One way that UMASS-Lowell has planned for full D-1 status is their use of red-shirts.  2 players each of the past 2 years have red-shirted for their freshman season.  This will allow the River Hawks to preserve the eligibility of players for when they are able to participate in the NCAA Tournament.A young team with only one senior, look for the River Hawks to make a jump in performance in the coming years.

Abilene Christian– The Wildcats have shown improvement this year in their third season if the reclassification process.  They have eclipsed their win totals from either of their first 2 seasons of Division 1 play.  Currently, the Wildcats sit in 6th place in the 13-team Southland conference, with a record of 7-7 in conference play and 12-15 overall.  There’s certainly reason for optimism for ACU fans, as their two leading scorers are freshman.  One of them, guard Jaylen Franklin, is scoring 15.8 points per game.  In a couple of years, the Wildcats could be at the top of the Southland Conference.

Grand Canyon– Coached by former Phoenix Sun Dan Majerle, the Antelopes have been perhaps the most successful team during their transition period.  After 2 straight seasons of reaching the CIT, Grand Canyon has taken its game to another level this season.  The Antelopes are 24-4 this season, including wins over San Diego State, Houston, and Marshall.  Another thing that Grand Canyon has going for them is strong fan support. They averaged over 5,400 fans per game last season, a number that ranks in the top 100 nationwide.

Incarnate Word– The Cardinals are another team who have been successful in their first few years vs D-1 competition.  After winning 21 games in their first season, the Cardinals have dropped off slightly, but still have represented themselves well in the last few years.  Last year, they reached the CIT.  You may have heard about Incarnate Word briefly due to their success against major conference schools.  Last year, they knocked off Nebraska, and this year, they defeated St. John’s.