- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - After upsetting then-No. 17 Michigan in the regular season, NJIT is headed to the postseason.

The regular-season finale usually means the end of the road for the men’s basketball program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. But after defeating Howard 71-62 Wednesday night at Fleisher Athletic Center, the Highlanders (18-11) earned a berth to the CIT.

That’s the College Insider.com Tournament, which invited NJIT to its 32-team field. The Highlanders will play at home in the opening round on March 16. Their opponent will be announced the day before.

Not bad for a program that lost all 29 games in 2007-08, eventually setting a new NCAA Division I record with 51 consecutive losses.

“It’s really hard to put it into words,” said NJIT coach Jim Engles, in his seventh year. “It’s a special moment for everyone involved. From where we were to where we are now is pretty special.”

NJIT, a commuter school of 10,000 students with an arena that doubles as a campus fitness center, is the nation’s lone independent team since the Great West Conference disbanded three years ago.

When Engles took over the program, the Highlanders won only one game during his first season.

But the improvements soon began. The Highlanders won 10 the following season, then 15 in 2010-11. They won the Great West Conference regular-season championship in the league’s final year in 2012-13. They posted 16 wins that year, their NCAA Division I high before this season.

In December, NJIT traveled to the 13,000-seat Crisler Arena and shocked Michigan 72-70. It helped the Highlanders gain national recognition after knocking off a school that played for the national title less than two years earlier.

“We came full circle that day,” said senior Daquan Holliday, who hit the clutch free throws in the final minute. “Before then, no one knew what NJIT was. After it, everyone would say, ‘Hey, you go to NJIT.’ It’s just amazing how far we’ve come in such a short time.”

The Highlanders had to pay an entry fee of $36,000 to get into the CIT, according to athletic director Lenny Kaplan. But the school gets to keep all revenues in ticket sales for the game, so that’s why they’re making a push to sell out the 1,500-seat center.

“It’s still a positive for us,” Kaplan said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had an opportunity to play in the postseason. As an independent, just getting a chance to play in the postseason is tough.”

Kaplan said he’s scheduled meetings with officials from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), which is comprised of mostly all-black institutions.

The postseason berth for NJIT comes shortly after the announcement of plans to build a new $100 million athletic facility, which should be ready by 2017.

“We’ve had some conferences tell us that the No. 1 reason why we didn’t get in was our athletic facility,” Kaplan said. “Well, now we’re getting a new one, so that will hopefully re-energize conversations.”

In the meantime, the Highlanders will play another game - a home game at that - and maybe more.

“I think we look at it as a challenge,” said sophomore Damon Lynn, the Highlanders’ leading scorer who collected the 1,000th career point in the Howard win. “We feel like we’re going to make the most of it.”

Kaplan hopes to join a conference after the postseason fanfare.

“It’s definitely a reward, but we don’t want to be too happy about it,” Engles said. “We need to get into a conference. Before people weren’t ready to entertain us as a member of their conference because we were so bad.

“Now no one might want us because we’re good. We’re getting some national recognition and that’s a good experience for us moving forward.”

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