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A Monday Night Football matchup between New England and Buffalo and an opponent whose name was unrecognizable to most casual college basketball fans conspired to keep fans out of the building as PC recorded its lowest attendance figure of the young season. But the Friars were able to overcome the lack of emotion by holding off a tough and resilient NJIT team.
The Highlanders are a team that starts four guards and has very little height but they launch threes with abandon and run a Princeton-type offense to get easy looks inside. A 21-12 team last season, they returned four starters, played Kentucky tough for a half, got a great win at South Florida and had won their previous two games by 14 points each. So, Ed Cooley rightfully figured NJIT as a tough challenge.
Both teams came out flat and missed plenty of shots in the early going, but after PC went up 13-7 on a layup putback by Jalen Lindsey, NJIT roared back for an 18-16 lead on a backdoor Mohammed Bendary layup. It was then that Kris Dunn made his presence felt. Dunn led a burst of 19 consecutive points that ended with PC up, 35-18 with 3:05 to play in the half. Dunn scored 10 of the points himself and harassed NJIT’s guards into turnover after turnover.
That might have been a knockout blow for some teams, but the Highlanders fought back on a layup and dunk by Terrence Smith, who began to assert himself on the glass, a three pointer by Damon Lynn and when Dunn fouled Lynn on a three point attempt with 3 seconds left, Lynn converted two of three freebies to end the half with PC up, 37-27. Going into halftime, it was a game again.
Two things combined to sink NJIT in the second half. The Highlanders fell into deep foul trouble and PC, unlike the previous two games, shot lights out from the charity stripe. NJIT snipers Winfield Willis, Tim Coleman and Terrence Smith all spent significant time on the bench and eventually fouled out. In addition, Ky Howard and Rob Ukawuba had three fouls each and were limited as such. Meanwhile, PC took advantage, hitting 25-30 of their free throws. And they were all needed.
PC’s second half lead peaked at 45-30 but NJIT kept fighting back. Lynn, who was 1-8 in the first half and was bottled up by Junior Lomomba, began to heat up and his layup made it 50-43. PC led again 59-45 on a three point play by Rodney Bullock, but turnovers and bad shots enabled the Highlanders to get below double digits on a Lynn three with 6:33 to go. Another three by Lynn made it 68-62 and after a Ryan Fazekas layup, Ukawuba drilled a three and PC’s lead was 70-65 with 3:18 to play.
That was as close as NJIT would come. A three point play by Dunn eased the pressure and after a Ukawuba jumper cut it to 79-73 with 42 seconds left, PC iced it with free throws by Dunn and Ben Bentil.
NJIT did not go easily. Timely three point shooting in the second half by Lynn and Ukawuba, along with an offense that used a ton of backdoor cuts, ball screens, pick and rolls and baseline drives enabled the Highlanders to get inside at will and stay close. Lynn ended with 24 points, on 4-9 threes, while Ukawuba had 20 with 4-6 threes and Howard had 10 points and 7 boards. The smaller team outrebounded PC, 38-34, shot 57 percent in the second half, but committed 22 turnovers and 26 fouls.
Meanwhile, Dunn stuffed the stat sheet and for a while, fans dreamed of a quadruple double. He ended with 22 points (9-9 on free throws), 10 rebounds, 9 assists and 7 steals against just one turnover. Bullock came through with 18 points and 12 rebounds, Bentil had 19 points and Lindsey contributed 12 points. The Friars shot just 4-20 on three pointers, though, with Dunn and Fazekas 1-5 each and Lindsey 1-6 Other than from the line, shooting was not a highlight for PC in this one.
“I didn’t think we played particularly well on defense,” said Cooley. “We gave up 49 points in the second half and they shot 57 percent. We have to clean that up. Lynn made 126 three pointers last year, 4 a game. He made 4 tonight. They are a tough team.”