NJIT is Cinderella for a half vs. Villanova
For a time at the Pavilion Monday night, the holiday spirit took some interesting turns. "They're running the same play!'' one guy yelled Monday night at Villanova's defense.
For a time at the Pavilion Monday night, the holiday spirit took some interesting turns.
"They're running the same play!'' one guy yelled Monday night at Villanova's defense.
"Go inside!'' a coach in the stands demanded.
Once probably best known for a 51-game losing streak after making the jump to Division I, NJIT showed up with a new reputation - and a lifetime undefeated record against top 25 teams - after already pulling off the shocker of the college hoops season, a win at Michigan.
"Pre-Michigan, they didn't even know we had a basketball team,'' said NJIT guard Ky Howard, a Shipley School graduate, talking about what people in Philly knew about his school. "Post-Michigan, we're a basketball team that happened to beat Michigan. But we shocked the world.''
In the 10 days after its Dec. 6 victory at 17th-ranked Michigan, the New Jersey Institute of Technology hired a service that reported 3,000 unique stories about that game. T-shirts were printed with the score, bought up by Ohio State Buckeyes, among others.
Here they were in the flesh, running their variation of the Princeton offense, hitting their three-pointers, leading Villanova at the half, extending that lead to 48-41 with a couple of backdoor layups right after the break.
"Their style of play was more effective than we expected it would be,'' Villanova coach Jay Wright admitted later.
NJIT is the only school in Division I that doesn't have a conference. It wants to be in one, desperately. "They'd better get in a league quick because nobody is going to play them soon,'' Wright said.
Eventually, Villanova went on a 42-10 toboggan run, flying away to a 92-67 victory. The school with the little gym in Newark, with guys that were not even on any Big East backup radars, a school that probably got a $75,000 check or something close to it for playing the game - those guys were ticked off after it was over.
"We got sucked into playing too fast,'' Highlanders coach Jim Engles said outside his locker room. "We were playing with a really good purpose and we lost our minds. And that's no disrespect to Villanova. . . . We're not an individualized team. We need to assist on baskets. We started chucking up shots."
It's not as if NJIT is beating everybody. It is 5-8 with two losses to UMass Lowell on its books. But early Monday evening, the ball was moving and shots were falling, some right at the end of the shot clock. How close were the first 25 minutes to the Michigan game?
"Very similar,'' Engles said. "We were really playing well. We had 13 assists" - on 15 first-half hoops, including 8 of 13 three-point shooting. "That's what we are."
He knew the opponent was a step up from Michigan.
"Obviously, they have a chance to a win a national championship,'' Engles said.
A subplot: Ky Howard, who had 11 assists, is the younger brother of Villanova assistant Ashley Howard.
"Pregame, there was definitely a lot of talk,'' Ky Howard said. "When I came out for shootaround, he was sitting right there waiting for me. It was like, 'What's up? How you doing?' But as soon as I took my first [practice] shot, the trash talk kicked in. Then it went from brother to 'Nova vs. NJIT. He was just like, 'You are about to lose by 30. Our walk-ons are going to get a lot of time.' . . . It started my fuel."
When Villanova scheduled NJIT, the school couldn't know it was signing up maybe the best shaggy dog story in college hoops this season.
"There's no difference between us and Villanova and us and Michigan,'' said Engles, a Dickinson College graduate and former Columbia assistant. In a certain context, he believed it. "Our kids are full scholarship. They work hard academically. They have all the resources that they need to be successful. They work just as hard as these kids do."
But . . .
"We don't play in a 7,000-seat arena,'' Engles said. "We need a new facility. We're going to build a new $100 million facility over the next few years. . . . We need to be in a league to continue the progress. If we're not going to be in a league, it's just hard to maintain."
Beating Michigan "gave us a voice,'' Engles said.
It took a lot of the night before the full Pavilion crowd could rest easy and someone could finally yell out from the stands, "We're not Michigan."