Senior Abdul Lewis put forth a monster performance with game-highs in points (19), rebounds (16), assists (3) and blocks (5) in leading NJIT past St. Francis Brooklyn on Saturday at the Wellness and Events Center (WEC). As of publishing time, the Highlanders are one of just 12 teams in the nation with nine wins.
At 9-2, NJIT is off to its best start since the program opened 10-1 in 1994-95 – a season in which it went 28-2 and advanced to the NCAA Division-III Elite Eight. The Highlanders are now 3-0 against Northeast Conference teams this season, starting with road victories against the NEC regular-season champion (Wagner College) and tournament champion (LIU Brooklyn).
Sophomore Zach Cooks, who came into the affair leading the ASUN in scoring at 19.0 points per game, finished exactly at his average -- sharing game-high honors with Lewis at 19 points. He also tied his career-high with seven rebounds, a personal-best recently set in Tuesday's win over Army West Point.
Senior Diandre Wilson was the only other Highlander in double-digits, scoring 18 points on an effective 5-for-8 shooting and a perfect 7-for-7 from the line. It was the Fort Lauderdale native's best scoring output since draining 20 in a 63-60 win over Brown University on Nov. 11.
In what has been a growing theme for NJIT, defense was at the heart of this victory. The Highlanders held the NEC's second-leading scoring offense to just 60 points -- 18.5 points below their season average at the start of play. The Terries began just 1-for-12 from the floor, which proved to be a harbinger for the entire game. St. Francis Brooklyn finished at just 31.3-percent shooting (21-for-67) and 21.4-percent from downtown 6-for-28).
In addition, NJIT limited the Terriers' top three scorers, Jalen Jordan (16.3 ppg), Chauncey Hawkins (13.8 ppg) and Glenn Sanabria (10.1 ppg) to a combined 24 points on 9-for-35 shooting (25.7%).
The Highlanders, who entered the contest second in the ASUN in scoring defense (68.4 ppg) and field-goal-percentage defense (42.1%), have now allowed just 62.7 ppg (564) on 36.9-percent shooting (193-for-523) in their nine victories this season.
Because the Highlanders also started slow offensively -- converting on just one of their first nine field-goal attempts -- the NJIT lead was just 6-5 seven minutes into the game.
Eventually, the home team heated up.
With a 15-13 lead and 8:39 left before half, the Highlanders went on a 21-7 run that swelled their advantage to a then-game-high 15 points at 36-21 at the 3:07 mark. Wilson had seven points during the stretch -- including the first five -- and Cooks finished the span with the final five NJIT points. Lewis also chipped in with four points during this outcome-deciding period that lasted 5:32.
Out of the break, the Highlanders never looked back. At its apex, the lead ballooned to 31 points at 74-43 with 4:52 left to play.
If the cherry on top wasn't a Lewis block leading to an emphatic dunk by junior San Antonio Brinson in transition at the 1:22 mark, it certainly came in the form of a driving layup with a scoop by sophomore walk-on Patrick Jamison to the delight of the crowd with 19 seconds remaining.
Aside from the shooting disparity, the Highlanders also enjoyed a 46-39 rebounding advantage along with an 11-8 turnover edge. Compliments of Lewis, NJIT outscored St. Francis Brooklyn in the paint, 34-26.
NJIT has now completed the home portion of its non-conference schedule and will face a challenging four-game road trip starting Tuesday at Fordham University. The slate also includes Fairleigh Dickinson University (Dec. 15), University of Houston (Dec. 29) and Duquesne University (Dec. 31).
This tough stretch will lead into the start of ASUN play with a home bout against Kennesaw State University on Jan. 5.
At 9-2, NJIT has already clinched a winning record in its non-conference schedule -- accomplished only one other time in the program's Division-I history. During the 2015-16 season, the Highlanders posted a 9-7 non-conference mark en route to a 20-15 finish and run into the semifinals of the CollegeInsider.com National Postseason Tournament (CIT).