Jacks head to CIT final with 68-61 win over NJIT
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) Northern Arizona's fans spilled out of the stands and jumped almost in unison at center court of the Walkup Skydome. One was brave enough to do a snow angel next to a pulsating throng that continued to grow as more people streamed from the seats.
Smack in the middle of it were the Lumberjacks, enjoying every second of it after pulling off the biggest win in school history.
Quinton Upshur scored 23 points, Aaseem Dixon added 19 and Northern Arizona earned a spot in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament championship game with a 68-61 victory over New Jersey Institute of Technology Tuesday night.
''There was a moment where I was just speechless, looking around and not sure what to say,'' Dixon said of being in the crowd.
NAU (23-15) struggled offensively most of the night and trailed by 12 early in the second half.
The Lumberjacks fought their way back with a full-court press and a dominating performance on the glass. The Lumberjacks pulled ahead late and stayed there, hitting six free throws in the final 84 seconds before celebrating with their fans at center court.
Northern Arizona outrebounded NJIT by 14 and had 23 offensive boards, leading to 25 points, earning a spot in the CIT championship game Thursday at Evansville.
''I can't say enough about our guys,'' NAU coach Jack Murphy said. ''They get down, they battle back and never let that get them down. We stepped up and made some big plays.''
NJIT (22-12) appeared to be in control, leading by 12 early in the second half despite NAU's dominance on the glass.
Once the Lumberjacks turned up the defensive pressure with their press, the Highlanders stumbled.
Damon Lynn had 16 points to lead NJIT, which shot 34 percent and went 4 for 22 from 3-point range.
''Sincerely want to thank everyone who has followed us and supported us,'' NJIT coach Jim Engles said on Twitter. ''This team and school have come a long way. Please stick with us.''
Both teams had historic seasons even before meeting in the Arizona high country.
NJIT lost 51 straight games five years ago, but made a name for itself this season by beating the first Top-25 team it played, knocking off then-No. 17 Michigan 72-70 in Ann Arbor in December.
The Highlanders went on to earn their first postseason berth as a program and reached the CIT semifinals by knocking off New Hampshire, Cleveland State and Canisius.
NAU won its first postseason as a program by beating Grand Canyon in its CIT opener and pulled off a near-miraculous victory in the quarterfinals, scoring five points in the final 41 seconds of overtime to beat Kent State 74-73.
The Lumberjacks figured to have an extra home-court advantage in the semifinals; the Highlanders had to travel across country and play in the mile-high altitude of Flagstaff 48 hours after beating Canisius.
Thin air or not, neither team could get into much of an offensive rhythm once the game started, shooting airballs, straight-on shots that bounced high off the backboard and others that clanged off the side of the rim.
NJIT missed its first six shots while falling into an 11-2 hole and made 11 of 30 in the first half.
The Lumberjacks had even more trouble after their opening run, making 10 of 35 from the floor to trail 31-26.
''It wasn't so much what they were doing, we just weren't making plays,'' Upshur said.
The Highlanders began giving Northern Arizona with their spread offense late in the first half and continued to in the second, pushing the lead to 12 after hitting its first four shots.
The Lumberjacks as they always seem to, clawed their way back behind defense and rebounding.
Slowing the Highlanders down with a full-court press and snaring one offensive rebound after another, Northern Arizona went on a 15-2 run to take a 58-54 lead.
With a school-record crowd of 5,583 roaring with each basket and made free throw, the Lumberjacks closed out the victory and celebrated at center court after the fans spilled out of the stands.