NCCU, which last lost on January 11 (63-60 at Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference rival Florida A&M), raised its overall record to 22-5 with the 14th consecutive victory. NJIT, which had matched its season high with four straight wins before hosting the Eagles, completes the 2013-14 schedule with a 13-16 record.
NJIT’s Damon Lynn, whose 24 points made him the only Highlander in double-figures this night, also made six steals, a personal high and the most by a Highlander this year. It also tied the program record in the Division I era (began in 2006-07) that was done six times previously, five times by Chris Flores (Class of 2013), including three times in his senior season.
Lynn made two more 3-point field goals, raising his season total in that department to 107, making him fourth all-time for 3-pointers in a season by a Division I freshman. Stephen Curry (Davidson, 2006-07) holds the all-time record with 122, followed by Tajuan Porter (Oregon, also in 2006-07) with 110 and Keydren Clark (Saint Peter’s, 2002-03) with 109. Lynn also completes his freshman season averaging 3.69 3-point baskets a game, which is sixth-best all-time among freshmen for the rule that is in its 28th season.
The freshman ends the season with 500 points and a 17.2 points per game scoring average. The 500 points are the second-most in NJIT’s Division I era, trailing only Isaiah Wilkerson (Class of 2012), who scored 517 points in 32 games his senior season. Lynn’s 17.2 ppg is the best final average for an NJIT Division I player, passing Flores’ 16.9 average as a senior in 2012-13.
NJIT’s top rebounder was Terrence Smith with six, all in the second half.
Smith, the NJIT sophomore forward, who finished with 9 points and shot 3-for-4 from the field, ending the year with a school DI-record 62.9 percent field goal percentage, currently good for fourth in the nation. He shot 47-for-58 (81 pct) over the final eight games.
The Eagles never trailed, but a jumper by Smith gave NJIT a 2-2 tie 53 seconds into the game. From there, North Carolina Central ran off seven points in 79 seconds and continued to extend the lead the rest of the half, going up 10 at the 15:30 mark (15-5); 16 at 12:32 (21-5); 21 at 8:22 (28-7); and, a game-high 28 (41-13) with 2:01 left.
Reflecting the scoreboard at the half, NCCU was shooting 63.6 percent (14-22) from the field, 13-17 (76.5 percent) at the foul line to go with a 17-9 team rebounding lead and eight steals that contributed to 13 Highlander turnovers. To help put that in perspective, NJIT has had 16 entire games this season with 13 or fewer turnovers.
NJIT got five points in the half from freshman Montana Mayfield, four each from Smith and Lynn and two from Tim Coleman.
Coupled with the high turnovers total, the Highlanders shot 5-for-22 in the opening half, including 1-for-12 from 3-point range against an Eagles defense that ranks fourth nationally in field goal percentage defense (37.9 percent) and 10th in scoring defense (59.4 points per game).
With any eye on the last conference regular season games, plus the MEAC Tournament, the winner of which gets an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, it’s possible Coach Moton of the Eagles wanted to stretch the lead beyond 28 and then start resting some of his key players.
However, no one outside the NCCU coaching staff will ever know, because NJIT, realistically limited to playing the final 20 minutes of the season for pride, produced a pride-filled second-half effort.
A renewed focus on defending, rebounding, and executing plays was obvious in the Highlanders from the outset of the second half.
With the visitors having done pretty much what they wanted in half-court offense before the teams went to the locker room, Highlander coach Jim Engles moved to extend his team’s defense the length of the court. Even in half-court sets, NJIT’s perimeter defenders pressured the ball 25 feet from the basket.
And the points-off-turnovers were virtually flipped from half-to-half, with NJIT winning that category in the second, 20-5, after the Eagles won it 21-6 in the opening period.
The Highlanders never found a rhythm from 3-point distance (2-10 in the second half), but otherwise their aggressiveness paid off with an improved second-half field goal percentage (38.5 percent, up from 22.7 percent) and 32 foul shots in the second half (25-for-32) after just four attempts (all made) in the opening 20 minutes. The rebounding was much closer, too (20-16 for NCCU after 17-9 in the opening half).
It all added up to a 47-38 “win” of the second half for the Highlanders after they were battered 43-15 to begin.
Down 28 at halftime, NJIT actually fell back a point farther, 46-17, on an early jump shot by NCCU’s Houston. But the harder effort soon began paying off and the Highlanders shaved the deficit to 19 at 52-33 when Lynn made all three of his free throws after being fouled on a shot from downtown with 13:17 left.
NJIT, which got as close as 17, trailed 66-48 after Mayfield, who was 6-for-6 at the foul line in the game, drained a pair with 4:14 left. NCCU then went on an 11-2 run, nine points coming from the redshirt senior, Anyaorah, in a span of 1:48, to push the lead back to 27, erasing all but one point of NJIT’s second-half comeback.
However, the Highlanders, still competing, outscored the Eagles 12-2 in the final 92 seconds.