By Justin Mathis
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – On Thursday night, USC Upstate honored a trio of seniors – Ramel Thompkins, Carson Smith, and Jacob Schulte – prior to the final regular season home game of the 2017-18 campaign, as the Spartans clashed with the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders.
A rough start to the second half, combined with a balanced attack from the Highlanders, spelled trouble for the Spartans, as they fell to NJIT 76-67.
Upstate started off strong and built an early lead over NJIT, extending it out to a ten-point advantage, 19-9, within the first six minutes of the contest. The Highlanders fought back to a 24-all tie near the midway point of the opening frame.
“Our defense (was the key),” NJIT head coach Brian Kennedy said. “First off, I want to give credit to (coach) Kyle (Perry) and his team. We knew they were going to be ready. They came out and hit a bunch of shots. We had to take their first punch, then get back up and keep fighting.”
The game was a tug-of-war for the last ten minutes and 16 seconds of the first half, as the two clubs combined for a dozen lead changes and eight ties. NJIT took a 44-42 lead into the halftime break.
Upstate attempted to claw its way back, but couldn’t find a rhythm on offense, missing 13 of its first 15 shots from the field to begin the second stanza. That allowed the Highlanders to gradually increase their lead from four to double digits, as large as 16 points.
“When we don’t make shots, we struggle defensively,” USC Upstate head coach Kyle Perry stated. “When you go through a season like this, guys tend to lose focus on the team aspect of it and begin to start focusing on the individual aspect… We’ve got to get ready for Florida Gulf Coast. We played well against them a couple of weeks ago. Our kids have the ability to play and to get through these games. One of my biggest things is that I want them to fight until we can’t fight anymore, regardless of what has happened and regardless of what has taken place.”
The big key for the Highlanders was the production from their bench, who poured in 43 points, while Upstate only had 17 points. NJIT also outscored the Spartans in the paint 43-15, while also holding the Spartans to 10-for-31 (32.5 percent) from the field in the second half.
NJIT, who was without Anthony Tarke, used a balanced attack on the offensive end and had four players finish in double figures, led by Shawndale Jones with 13 points and six rebounds. Three more Highlanders – Diandre Wilson, Zach Cooks, and Donovan Greer – tallied 11 points apiece.
Four Spartans also tallied double-digit totals, led by Deion Holmes with 15 points. Ramel Thompkins and Mike Cunningham each scored 13 points, followed by Thomas Booker with 10.
With the win, NJIT (14-15, 7-7 A-Sun) secured the fourth seed and home game for the first round of the Atlantic Sun Tournament, which begins Monday, February 26th. The Highlanders will host fifth-seeded North Florida at 7:30 PM on Monday night.
USC Upstate (7-24, 2-12) will open the A-Sun Tournament on the road at top seed and regular-season champion Florida Gulf Coast on Monday at 7 PM.
“I think the kids believe they can play,” Perry added. “They believe that they can be in these games. The thing is we have to sustain it for 40 minutes, not just 20 or 25 or 30 – we have to sustain it the entire game.”
2018 Atlantic Sun Men’s Basketball Quarterfinals – Feb. 26th (all times Eastern):
- #8 USC Upstate at #1 FGCU, 7 PM
- #7 Stetson at #2 Lipscomb, 8 PM
- #6 Kennesaw State at #3 Jacksonville, 7 PM
- #5 North Florida at #4 NJIT, 7:30 PM