NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The days of just family and friends attending New Jersey Institute of Technology basketball games are over, at least for now.
And the timing for the Highlanders to become one of the hottest names in college hoops couldn't be better for the school as it fights to find a conference.
Eight years after attaining Division I status, NJIT is seeing gear sales and attendance spike after their team that pulled off a stunning upset of No. 17 Michigan on the road last week.
Finals week? No matter, students at the school known for engineering packed NJIT's Fleisher Center on Tuesday night for a game against St. Francis, N.Y.
Nearly 1,400 fans sat in portable bleachers brought to add capacity in a gym that features seating on only one side of the court. And they weren't there for the free ice cream promotion — rowdy students skipped studying to wave big-headed posters of the Highlanders and coach Jim Engles, continuously chanting "N-J-I-T" hundreds of times.
"When I came out on the floor for warm-ups and saw everyone here, I got a little emotional," said senior forward Daquan Holliday, who had to do a final online for a marketing class after Tuesday night's game, a 68-66 win, improving NJIT to 4-5. "I never saw anything like that. It was an amazing feeling."
It was the largest crowd for a basketball game in school history. And it was loud.
"I've been to Cameron (Indoor Stadium on Duke's campus) and the Palestra (in Philadelphia) and I never heard anything that loud," said Engles, now in his seventh year as coach.
Just the latest in a whirlwind response from all over the country, with texts and phone calls from all over, Engles said. It started when a group of fans met the team bus when they arrived back in Newark after beating Michigan on Saturday.
That meant a lot, sophomore guard Damon Lynn said.
"These are people we see every day around school," he said. "For them to come out and support us is tremendous."
NJIT has sought a permanent conference for three years. The Highlanders once played in the Great West Conference, but that league disbanded when the remaining schools all found different leagues. This marks the second straight season that the Highlanders are the nation's only independent team in Division I.
It's also a program that lost all 29 games in 2007-08, eventually setting a new NCAA Division I record with 51 consecutive losses.
NJIT faces a tough schedule as an independent, relying on financial guarantees from other big-time programs. Besides beating Michigan, NJIT beat Duquesne and almost knocked off Marquette. It will face No. 7 Villanova on Dec. 23.
In February, when most major Division I teams are playing their conference foes, the Highlanders have to scramble to find games against NAIA and Division III opponents.
Engles said the school needs more wins like its game against Michigan to help the school join a conference.
"A win like that definitely has to be a selling point and has to put us back in the conversation," he said. "It has to be used as leverage."
The burst in name recognition is real, as the manager of NJIT's bookstore says athletic gear sales have more than tripled. About half the orders were from Michigan and Ohio.
"On a typical Monday morning, I'd come in and have three to five online orders. I came in Monday and there were 90 orders. It was incredible," Peter Maranzano said. "We're theorizing that it was Michigan State and Ohio State fans trying to razz the Wolverines. To get T-shirt sales from East Lansing is not at all what I expected."
Lynn knows that the Highlanders have to build on their new-found attention.
"It was only one win," Lynn said. "We can't stop here. We're the ones stuck without a conference."