By Justin Rimpi
Fairleigh Dickinson defeated the Red Flash of St. Francis (Pa.), 85-76, in the NEC tournament championship game Tuesday night, locking down a berth in the NCAA tournament, winning on the road before a packed house in Loretto, Pa.
The Knights, led by sixth-year head coach Greg Herenda, return to the tournament for the first time since 2016.
Could FDU be headed to Salt Lake City for a date with No. 1 Gonzaga? Or Columbus and No. 1 Virginia? The FDU community will find out who they play on Sunday, when the NCAA unveils its bracket, launching a million pools!
The Knights, in winning their 20th game and their eighth straight after sharing the regular-season title with SFU, could not be stopped offensively as they shot 64 percent from the field and 54 percent from long-range.
All five of the Knights’ starters scored in double-figures for the 11th time this season.
Senior guard Darnell Edge led the Knights in scoring with 21 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field. Sophomore guard Jahlil Jenkins and junior forward Kaleb Bishop both scored 20 points. Sophomore forward Elyjah Williams and senior forward Michael Holloway Jr. rounded out the scoring each with 12 points in the victory.
The Knights scored 0 bench points.
“I feel so proud to be able to witness such a great team achieve their dreams,” said senior women’s basketball player Lucia Serrano-Ranz. “It was a team effort all around and a game I will never forget.”
The Red Flash shot 47 percent from the field and 52 percent from downtown.
A key to the Knights’ victory was controlling NEC player of the year junior guard Keith Braxton. Braxton shot 4-10 from the field en route to 10 points. Braxton was averaging 16.4 ppg entering the championship.
A 21-point performance from Red Flash senior guard Jamaal King led the team in scoring. Redshirt junior Isaiah Blackmon and sophomore forward Mark Flagg were the only other Red Flash players to score in double-figures. They scored 13 and 12 points respectively.
Clutch free-throw shooting by the Knights sealed more than the game.
It propelled the Knights into the “Big Dance.”
“Jahlil Jenkins now proved that he is one of the best guards,” said Herenda. “A team effort to come in here with a full house is just incredible.”
“It is a dream come true,” said Jenkins.
The Knights shot 18-20 from the line.
On the other hand, SFU shot 4-17 from the charity stripe.
Saint Francis never held the lead in the second half.
“We play Jersey City basketball,” said Herenda. “We just play and fight and compete and claw.”
A 16-2 run from the Knights in first-half scoring jump started a sluggish Burgundy and Blue offense.
They would never look back.
Bishop and Edge led the Knights with 12 and 9 points, respectively, in the first half.
“I just thought my team played really well,” said Bishop. “Our guards played well and our defense was great. Elyjah and Mike came up big for us and it was an overall great team effort. We just wanted it more. We played together as a team when it mattered.”
The Knights led 40-31 at intermission.
It is spring break on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University and there was no raucous celebration on the banks of the Hackensack River.
Instead, with many of the students away there was no celebration at all. It was as if the Knights had not just won a conference championship.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” applies to this Knight’s team. Coach Herenda had the Knights playing their best basketball at the most crucial time.
That is the reason why the FDU Knights are the 2018-2019 Northeast Conference champions.