New Jersey Institute of Technology has only been a full-fledged Division I basketball program since the 2009-10 season, but the Highlanders gave University at Albany all it could handle on banner night Tuesday at SEFCU Arena.
Trailing by as much as nine (55-46) with 9:07 to play, the Great Danes, who unveiled their 2012-2013 America East Conference championship banner before the home opener, got clutch baskets from Sam Rowley and Gary Johnson to overtake the Highlanders, 71-65, in a non-conference game that ended up much closer than many people thought.
Rowley, a 6-foot-6 junior forward, hit back-to-back baskets, Peter Hooley made one of two free throws and Johnson added consecutive hoops during a 9-0 run that knotted the score at 55-55.
The Highlanders pulled ahead at 59-55, and then again at 62-59, before the Great Danes’ press began to take its toll.
Hooley nailed a trey from the corner to even the score at 62-62, and then Johnson and Hooley combined for four free throws to give the Great Danes (2-0) a 66-62 cushion with 1:11 to go.
Ky Howard’s driving layup cut the deficit to a basket, but when D.J. Evans missed the second of two free throws, Johnson grabbed the rebound to give the Great Danes another possession. Evans fed Rowley at the free-throw line, and he sank a 15-foot jumper with 39.9 seconds left to seal the win.
“I was surprised that last shot went in,” said Rowley. “I don’t shoot many jump shots.”
Rowley finished with 12 points, and Hooley connected for 13, but the offensive star was Evans, who poured in a career-high 20 points. It was the second straight time he scored a career high, after recording 12 points against Siena in the Great Danes’ season-opening win last Friday.
“It feels good,” said Evans, who rode the bench as Mike Black’s backup last year, but is now the starting point guard. “I do what I need to do to help this team win, whether it’s five, 10 or 20 points. I just let the game come to me.”
Johnson, who contributed eight points, five rebounds and four assists, was also a key player down the stretch
“I was just trying to be aggressive,” said Johnson. “I think our press bothered them, and I was just going for the ball.”
UAlbany got off to a strong start, with Evans scoring 13 of his points in the first 13 minutes to help the Danes take a 17-10 lead.
But the undersized and quick Highlanders stormed back to grab a 33-29 lead at the half. The Highlanders’ zone defense frustrated the Great Danes, and they also hit the boards hard, despite giving up several inches at every position.
“We just played Tulane, and we got outrebounded by 15,” said NJIT head coach Jim Engles. “Rebounding was a focus for us tonight. I’m proud of the way our kids played on the glass tonight.”
UAlbany head coach Will Brown said his substitution rotation against the Highlanders might have hurt the Danes’ cause.
“I probably hurt us in the first half as much as anything. I subbed too much,” Brown said. “We use a plus-minus system just like hockey, and all our starters were plus in the first half. But I wanted to give more guys some minutes.”
Although NJIT isn’t a household name to most college basketball fans, the Great Danes weren’t taking them for granted.
“We played them and lost to them in a scrimmage last year,” said Rowley.
“They were extremely athletic,” added Johnson. “They are not big, but they know how to play, and they have some good shooters.”
The Highlanders took a 43-36 lead with 15:30 to go when Nigel Sydnor hit a trey, and they kept their advantage around seven points for most of the second half before the Great Danes made their late run.
“I had no doubts that this would be a tough game,” said Brown. “They play patiently on offense, and they pack it in on defense. They play small, and we’re just the opposite. But I want to keep our big guys on the floor. I want to play to our strengths.”
Brown said he is hoping his team can play better in the first half. The Danes also struggled in the first half against the Saints before bouncing back late.
“They [the Highlanders] were better than us for the first 30 minutes. We were better for the last 10 minutes,” he said. “The good thing was that our press sped them up at the end. We were impatient offensively and defensively in the first half.”
Terrance Smith led the Highlanders with 19 points. Howard and Damon Lynn added 15 and 14 points, respectively. NJIT shot 51 percent form the floor.
UAlbany plays NJIT again Dec. 1 in New Jersey to complete the home-and-home series.
Howard 6-7 3-5 15, Duncan 0-0 0-0 0, Coleman 2-6 1-2 5, Sydnor 1-3 0-0 2, Lynn 5-11 0-0 14, Holiday 1-4 0-0 2, Willis 3-7 1-2 8, Smith 8-13 3-3 19, Tselentakis 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 26-51 8-12 65.
Odunsi 1-2 2-2 4, Evans 8-14 1-2 20, Shengalia 0-0 2-2 2, Haas 1-4 0-0 3, M. Rowley 0-2 2-2 2, Devlin 0-1 0-0 0, Hooley 3-12 4-6 13, S. Rowley 6-8 0-2 12, Johnson 3-6 2-2 8, Wiegmann 1-2 0-0 3, Ennema 0-0 0-0 0, Puk 1-3 2-2 4. Totals: 24-54 15-20 71.
Halftime: NJIT, 33-29. Three-point goals: NJIT 5-13 (Coleman 0-1, Sydnor 0-1, Lynn 4-8, Willis 1-3); UAlbany 8-21 (Evans 3-7, Haas 1-4, Hooley 3-9, Wiegmann 1-1). Rebounds: NJIT 28 (Holiday 5); UAlbany 31 (Johnson 5). Assists: NJIT 11 (Willis 4), UAlbany 16 (Johnson 4). Personal fouls: NJIT 18, UAlbany 15. Officials: D.J. Cartensen, Sean Hull, Kyle Walter. Attendance: 3,141.