With 13.6 seconds left in one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history, Al-Tariq Lynn was two rows behind the visitor’s bench, smiling from ear to ear. New Jersey Institute of Technology coach Jim Engles was tense, not caving in to the optimism Lynn exuded eight feet behind him.
NJIT wasn’t supposed to have a prayer Saturday. No. 17 Michigan was going to roll the Highlanders, then put in its substitutes and roll them some more.
“Coming into the season, I sort of penciled this one in as an ‘L,’ ” Engles would later say.
This was a team coming off a Final Four and an Elite Eight in its last two seasons against the lone independent in Division I men’s college basketball — a team that’s independent for a reason.
No one wanted the NJIT Highlanders, the team that went 0-29 in 2007-08. They’ve been trying to get into the America East for years, but the league won’t take them.
But here’s the thing about the team no one wants: it’s made up of players that no one wanted — no one except NJIT. And when a team like that gets a national stage against a ranked opponent, they tend to remember how unwanted they once were. They play better than they’re supposed to. They play better than maybe they even are.
And Michigan coach John Beilein knew they would.
“Those guys, the crowds don’t faze them,” he said. “Those guys live on the road.”
That’s what happened Saturday when Damon Lynn, the Highlanders freshman guard who wanted to play at Michigan, dropped 20 on the Wolverines. He saw every Derrick Walton Jr. 3-pointer and matched it. He wasn’t fazed by Caris LeVert’s bank shot and kept going. What did he have to lose?
So Lynn’s dad, Al-Tariq, stood there with time frozen, smiling and remembering how his son was “too small” to get an offer from Michigan.
“What happens if they win?” he was asked.
“There’s no if,” he said. “It’s gonna happen.”
The Highlanders huddled together, at first without their coach. They gave each other the usual words of encouragement, “let’s go,” and “we got this,” but the real message was in their eyes. Not one of them flinched.
When Engles joined them, they passed around a white towel, wiping off thick drops of sweat and catching their breath. They were hunched over, gathering all the air they could, watching their coach draw up an inbounds play to try to seal a momentous upset with 13.6 seconds left.
“It’s the most confidence I’ve seen every person on our team have in a while,” said guard Ky Howard. “Everybody counted us out, so we went into the situation knowing, if we lose, it’s expected. If we win, we shock the country.”
The Highlanders didn’t win off the inbounds. Daquan Holiday got fouled and hit two free throws to go up by three, smirking the whole time he was at the line. And eventually, after an eternity of free throws and swallowed breaths, the buzzer sounded and their celebration began. They jumped, arms blurring with legs, while their cries of joy replaced the air they had just sucked out of Crisler Center.
In a moment like that, everything is a freeze frame.
“I honestly wanted to cry,” Howard said. “The coaches, the guys — we’ve worked so hard to prove ourselves over and over. We felt like, honestly, earlier this year, when we were at Marquette, we were close. And now, to get one of those games that we really wanted, it’s a blessing.”
Added Highlanders forward Terrence Smith: “Right when it happened, it was amazing. We tried to be calm and wait to the end, but we couldn’t. At that point it was like, ‘Yo, we did it.’ ”
Smith didn’t play a minute in Saturday’s game, but he still felt on top of the world.
In moments like that, it doesn’t matter who played the most, or who scored the points, or who hit the free throws or who was recruited by whom. Every one of those unwanted players knocked off Michigan.
Right in the middle of it was Lynn, the undersized guard from New Jersey who would have gone to Michigan if he could have — if they had wanted him.
“A lot of people doubted me,” he said. “That chip is on my shoulder for the rest of my life. Everybody doubted me. I’m not doubting myself, though.”
In Engles’ post-game press conference, he joked about not being accepted into a conference yet.
“We’re trying to get into the American East conference,” he said. “I want to get into the Big Ten. How about opening a spot for us?”
While all of this was happening, Smith and Howard walked up the court in the now-empty arena, crossing the spot where freshman guard Aubrey Dawkins took a last-ditch heave that fell short. They walked to the block ‘M’ at center court and looked around.
A man packing up equipment flagged them down, so they walked over. For an autograph? For a congratulatory handshake? Nope. He saw the two players, fresh off the biggest win of their lives, and handed them his phone. He wanted them to take a picture of him and his son.
Things aren’t going to change for NJIT overnight. It still won’t get the respect it craves, and the Highlanders might still be kept out of the America East.
But they had their moment, and they made a hell of a sales pitch.
Bultman can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @m_bultman.