Ray Floriani of College Chalktalk is the RTC correspondent of the MAAC and NEC Conferences.
NEWARK, NJ – Sunday afternoon brought a venture to this city to catch NJIT and Wagner in a non-conference meeting. The NJIT campus is located downtown walking distance from Rutgers-Newark and UMDNJ (University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey). Outside the NJIT Fleisher Center is an inscription ‘The edge is knowledge’.
NJIT entered the game 0-11 and in the midst of a 44-game losing streak. While the basketball team is struggling to find their way in Division I, the inscription bears a reminder to visitors, this is one of the nation’s elite technological and research institutions. A virtual ’heavyweight’ in academia. The modest sized crowd is into the contest and cheering the homestanding Highlanders. Winless, yet the effort is there. Defensively they get after it. Every time a run seems to be building or going their way the Highlanders miss a shot or lose the ball. Coach Jim Engles roams the sideline, intense and enthusiastic.
At the half they trail 34-22. The second half starts well for NJIT. They chip away at the lead and gradually draw even with 10 minutes to play. A free throw puts NJIT up one with just under nine minutes left. Wagner answers with two unanswered baskets and never looks back. With a minute to go the Wagner lead is double digits. There is a loose ball and an NJIT player dives across the floor in pursuit. In defeat, nothing is left in reserve. Wagner eventually closes out the 68-58 victory. “Only a coach can understand the marvelous job Jim (Engles) is doing,” praised Wagner mentor Mike Deane. “They will win a few games this year. Guaranteed. I’m just glad they didn’t get a win against us.”
In the hallway Engles reviews the stat sheet that shows NJIT had four players in double figures led by Jheryl Wilson’s 16 points. Another thing crosses his mind. “We gave up rebounds off their (Wagner) missed free throws a few times down the stretch,” Engles notes. “Those are extra possessions we are giving them.” Engles notes the losing is tough but day to day the players come to the gym, resilient and eager to learn and get better. “Hey, teams are challenging us,” Engles adds. “They are getting after us and that’s the way I want it.” Upbeat despite the loss, Engles and his team will be back to work to prepare for Lehigh on New Year’s Eve. “”This is the first step,” Engles adds, “in a long process.” The loss to Wagner put the Highlanders at 0-12. The won-lost record unfairly does not measure heart and commitment.
(ed. note – here is NJIT’s remaining schedule and accompanying percentage chance of winning each game, according to kenpom.com. That Maryland-Eastern Shore game can’t come soon enough…)