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Hope and the Highlanders

If nothing else, my memories of Senior Day 2012 at NJIT should be a lot more positive than the ones I have from the last Highlanders senior day I attended.

That senior day was in 2008, the year that the Highlanders went on to post the worst record in the history of Division I basketball. I had kept an eye on the team’s results during that season and decided that I would check out their final home game should they remain winless to that point. That they did, and thus I caught my first glimpse of the Garden State’s newest Division I basketball team (their transition began in 2006-07).

For some reason, it never occurred to me before I arrived at Newark’s Fleischer Center that February just how bad an independent team like the Highlanders had to be to not pick up a win at some point against some of the weak competition that appeared on their schedule. It didn’t take long for me to learn. I arrived to the game late, and by the time I settled into my seat, the Highlanders had already fallen behind by double digits to their senior day opponents — coincidentally enough — Chicago State. Similarly discouraging, one of the first things I noticed upon entering the gym was a older man, possibly in his 50s, succinctly venting about the team’s performance to the person sitting next to him. “Pitiful!” he grumbled. “Just pitiful!”

And pitiful was a good word for it. During the 30 or so minutes of game time that I did manage to catch, I saw the Highlanders miss layup after layup, turn the ball over constantly in a number of baffling ways, miss easy dunks, and all in all just play terrible, borderline unwatchable basketball. Even a late rally that drew NJIT within a single possession was undermined by their typical poor play, and the Cougars wound up winning the game by double digits. Pitiful was one good word for it, hopeless seemed like it could be another.

Fast-forward to 2012: NJIT now has a home in the six-team Great West Conference, has a new coaching staff whose head man even received a national coach of the year vote, and, while still not great, has actually proven capable of winning some basketball games. Put simply, NJIT has hope now. Add all of that to the fact that they and their conference-mates from Chicago State needed to be covered for the 800GP, and I figured it’d be a good time to pay the Fleischer Center another visit.

As it turned out, my idea was not unique. When I arrived about 15 minutes before the scheduled tip, I latched onto the back of a line that would eventually coil through the building’s lobby and into the concourse in front of the Fleischer Center as I waited to buy my ticket. The high demand seemed to catch everyone by surprise, be it the people waiting in line, or the folks at the ticket table attempting to accommodate all of them. The length of this line was particularly unexpected because it was for non-students only. NJIT students could simply walk into the building through a different set of doors — an express line of sorts — and enter free of charge.

Despite my 20 minute wait in line, I didn’t miss any of the game thanks to senior day ceremonies. This, in theory, would be a positive. Yet, on the contrary, the first half turned out extremely ugly and highly reminiscent of its 2008 predecessor: lots of turnovers, missed layups, bad shooting (probably even worse than the ’08 game — the teams combined to go 9/55 from the field), a lot of fouling, and a lot of subsequent missed free throws (10, though the poor shooting from the field served to amplify the futility from the line). Joining up with those old standards were a couple strange moments unique to this game: one involving Chicago State’s Matt Samuels prematurely hustling back on defense after making his second foul shot after being fouled on a 3-point attempt, another featuring the substitution horn being blown during an active play which caused everyone on the court to freeze, then resume play once the referee gestured to do so. (Awesome trick, dude!) In a game with quality action, those may have come across as fun, quirky little departures from the norm. In this game, and given what I’d seen four years earlier, these incidents just seemed like part of the norm. That made them a lot less charming. When the half mercifully drew to a close, NJIT took a 20-15 lead into the locker room.

It was hard to expect a lot from the second half, and maybe those low expectations altered my perspective. No matter, the second half of this game looked like two perfectly competent college basketball teams who desperately wanted to win. Every time NJIT looked like it was pulling away, Chicago State — playing in its final game of the year due to a substandard academic progress rate — would battle back. Likewise, every time Chicago State would close in on the lead, NJIT would make a basket to hold them off. There weren’t any outstanding, flashy plays as the game still hung in the balance, just some generally decent basketball with a few holdover warts from the dismal first half. It wasn’t until the final minute of the game that the Highlanders tried to punctuate their victory.

Sophomore center Kherel Silcott was the first to take a crack at it, sending the Fleischer Center crowd into a frenzy with 47 seconds to go by firing home a dunk and getting fouled in the process. That dunk largely sealed Chicago State’s fate, though they continued to try to extend the game. The Cougars’ late-game tactics set up a similar dunk 14 seconds later (no foul this time) from senior center Ryan Regis.

And then, finally, came the would-be coup de grace, which turned out to be more a microcosm of the NJIT basketball I’m familiar with. With 14 seconds left and the outcome no longer in any doubt, junior guard P.J. Miller came away with the steal, took it the other way, launched himself high in the air and… blew the dunk. There were groans, as there have been so many times since the Highlanders stepped up to D1. But once NJIT came away with the offensive rebound and ran out the clock, the groans and exasperation morphed into appreciation from a crowd north of 1,000. The Highlanders’ 13th win of the year may not have been pretty, but it sure beat being hopeless.

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