Survive and Advance, Day 1: Hat(ter) Trick

Over the next seven days, A Lot of Sports Talk will be on site at a different city each successive day covering playoff games – mostly of the elimination variety – as Championship Week gets underway, specifically in college basketball. Day 1 found us in the Garden State, as the first D-1 conference tournament games got underway on Tuesday.

NEWARK, N.J. – Not too long after 2016 Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year Derick Newton played his worst game in an otherwise outstanding season, his head coach, against’s Derick’s wishes, wanted him to watch the tape of his off night. It’s a good thing he listened.

Newton, less than a month after scoring a season-low five points on the road against the New Jersey Institute of Technology, had arguably his best game of the year against the same opponent in the same arena, but with much more at stake. His 28 points and 11 rebounds carried the seventh-seeded Hatters to an upset of the second-seeded Highlanders, 82-67, in the Atlantic Sun Conference quarterfinals.

In 11 years as a member of Division 1, the Highlanders, who gained national attention last season after defeating Michigan in Ann Arbor in non-conference play, finally competed in their first conference tournament game as a member of an automatic qualifying conference. The atmosphere in the packed Fleisher Athletic Center was that of a city championship game in a high school basketball hotbed: a small gymnasium – with the backboards hanging from the ceiling as opposed to a basketball stanchion – throwing up with people, without a seat to be had in the arena.

Stetson was able to stunt any momentum generated from the small (1,022) yet boisterous crowd, opening up a double-digit lead at 24-13 less than midway through the first half. Newton hit five of his six shots in the half – including both of his threes – to carry the Hatters to a 13-point cushion into intermission, 41-28.

That was a far cry from the game on Feb. 11, when Newton shot 2-of-10 from the floor and only scored five in a 74-70 loss in Newark, a game which completed a season sweep of the Hatters by New Jersey Tech.

“I wasn’t as aggressive,” said Newton, explaining what happened in their last meeting after watching the game film at the advice of head coach (and former NBA player) Corey Williams, adding that his defender, NJIT’s Tim Coleman, gave him room to shoot from the outside and didn’t allow him to drive.

“I steeped up my play [tonight],” Newton continued. “My team needs me as the leading scorer. Even though I’m a freshman, I have a big role.”

First-team All-Atlantic Sun guard Damon Lynn, who averages 18.1 points per game on the year and played a big role in the Highlanders’ success this season, scored 24, but only shot 7-of-21 from the field. The Highlanders were held under 40 percent shooting in each half, while the Hatters eclipsed 50 percent in both, ending the night at 53.6 percent shooting from the floor.

Stetson, who was ruled ineligible for this year’s Big Dance by the NCAA for failing to clear the minimum Academic Progress Report bar of 930 points, will stay on the road take on the top seed, North Florida, on Thursday in the A-Sun semifinals. If the Hatters win the tournament, North Florida will earn the automatic bid into the Big Dance as a result of winning the regular season title.

[Cover photo (Derick Newton) courtesy of Jim Hogue Photos]

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