The Jackrabbit men’s basketball team used aggressive defense and quality shooting to reverse a nine-game losing streak, defeating the New Jersey Institute of Technology, 71-61.
Saturday’s game not only ended a losing streak, it ended the career of two Jackrabbit basketball players. Seniors Andy Kleinjan and Jose Frias played in their final games at SDSU.
“(It) hasn’t hit me yet,” Kleinjan said.
Head Coach Scott Nagy said the two seniors played a critical part in holding the team together through the difficult year.
“Both guys have been our glue,” he said. “They’ve had good attitudes.”
The Jackrabbits used the seniors’ last game as motivation for their energy in the victory.
“We wanted to play hard for them,” freshman forward Kai Williams said. “They’ve always been there to be the vocal leaders.”
Despite the desire to play well for the seniors, the Jacks fell behind early in the game, 5-0. Michael Loney’s layup with 16:00 remaining gave the Jacks a lead they would not relinquish in the first half, leading by as many as 11. The Highlanders closed the half out strong, using a 13-5 run to pull within three, 36-33, on Andrew Engel’s pull-up jumper at the end of the half.
SDSU used solid shooting to build their early lead, hitting eight of their first 11 shots. Overall, the Jacks shot 51.9 percent in first half. They shot poorly from 3-point land, hitting only 3-13. However, they only missed three 2-point field goals all half, shooting 11-14.
Balanced scoring was the name of the game for the Jacks in the first half, as nine different Jacks scored, led by Williams’ nine points.
SDSU’s active defense forced 13 NJIT first-half turnovers. Kleinjan and Frias each had two first-half steals, as the Jacks finished the half with nine.
The second half began sluggish for the Jackrabbits. They committed four turnovers in the first five minutes, compared to only two field goals. The Highlanders took advantage of SDSU’s sloppy play to regain the lead, 41-40, with 15:21 remaining.
It was at that point in the game, in contrast to the first half, where the Jacks were balanced in scoring, that Williams took over offensively for the Jacks. Williams single-handedly regained the lead for the Jackrabbits, scoring nine straight points for SDSU. He was the only SDSU player to score in an eight-minute span. He outscored the Highlanders 9-7 during his streak. Williams ended the night with 18 points to lead all scores.
“(I) just tried to stay aggressive throughout the game,” Williams said.
After Williams’ burst, SDSU’s offense stagnated. Loney’s third 3-pointer of the season was the only field goal for the Jacks in a six-minute span. Yet, they were able to expand their lead due to clutch free throw shooting by Matt Cadwell and poor shooting by the Highlanders.
NJIT got as close as three points down the stretch, but back-to-back layups by Williams and Frias game the Jacks a seven-point lead with 2:10 to play. NJIT never got closer than five after that, as the young SDSU team closed out the game with an 11-4 run to secure the victory.
“We owed a win to ourselves,” Williams said.
Hustle and effort led the Jacks to the victory. During one play in the second half, four different Jackrabbits dove on the floor for a loose ball. Kleinjan said the play showed how much effort the team puts into each game, even though they only had five wins.
“The second half was a trademark of the season,” Kleinjan said.
With the game in hand, Nagy decided to honor the seniors by taking them out of the game one at a time to standing ovations by the crowd of 1,220. Kleinjan gave his curtain call with 39.5 seconds remaining. Sixteen seconds later, Frias gave his final salute to the crowd.
With a win in the final game, SDSU ended an otherwise disappointing season on a high note and can look forward to next season.
“(It’s) great to end the season on a win,” Kleinjan said. “This is a good indication for next year.”
With only two seniors leaving, SDSU looks to bring back a talented group of returning players. SDSU has been plagued with players transferring and leaving the team, but Nagy does not expect any players to leave the squad this year.