Junior guard Jay Hook struggled with his shot for long stretches of Tulane’s season opener against the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
He never got the hook, though, because he still was the most productive player on the floor as the Green Wave beat the Highlanders 75-64 on Friday night at Devlin Fieldhouse.
A few weeks after breaking his shooting hand in practice, Hook led the Green Wave with a career-high 24 points and grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds, doubling his previous best of four boards by the first media timeout of the second half. Almost strictly a standstill 3-point shooter in his first two years, he went to the foul line 10 times and kept leaping high to pull down rebounds.
“A lot of thanks goes to my teammates,” Hook said. “They really helped me when I was struggling and told me to keep my head up. If this team needs me to rebound, I’ll rebound. The ability was always there, but you accept different roles each year. Whatever the team needs, I’ll do.”
His 5-of-14 shooting was an afterthought as he did almost everything else right for the Green Wave, which went 20-15 last season but was rocked at the end of the year by the transfer of leading scorer and rebounder Josh Davis to San Diego State and 2011-12 Conference USA Freshman of the Year Ricky Tarrant to Alabama.
“(Hook) is not looking over his shoulder anymore,” Tulane coach Ed Conroy said. “He knows he’s the guy. We don’t have the other guys potentially coming off the bench. Those are things we are preaching to him, and he had that resiliency tonight to live through some missed shots. He came up big for us down the stretch.”
Nearly bereft of experience after the departure of eight players, Tulane overcame that deficiency with athleticism and activity.
Leading 35-31 at the half, the Green Wave pulled away quickly. Freshman guard Jonathan Stark came up with a steal and layup on NJIT’s first possession to make the score 37-31. The next time down the court, Tulane’s Louis Dabney stole a pass that led to a dunk from Tre Drye. A little more than a minute later, Hook hit his first of four 3-pointers in the second half.
Just like that, the Green Wave led 42-31, and it extended the advantage to 48-33 on freshman Payton Henson’s smooth move in the lane.
“We definitely came out with a different mentality in the second half,” Hook said. “We were a little more focused on the defensive end, and it helped out our offense.”
NJIT never came closer than six points the rest of the way, cutting a 14-point deficit to 64-58 in the final three minutes. Drye responded with a layup to start a 6-0 run that finished off the Highlanders.
Drye had career highs with 14 points and 15 rebounds, getting a few key baskets off putbacks. Stark added 11 points and a team-high seven assists.
Henson and fellow freshman Cameron Reynolds contributed nine points apiece.
Tulane outrebounded NJIT, which did not have a starter taller than 6-foot-6, 46-31.
“I take pride in trying to be the meanest one out there and the toughest guy out there, which helps me get those rebounds,” Drye said. “It’s a must that I finish those plays.”
Damon Lynn paced NJIT, which lost four seniors, with 19 points, and Terrence Smith added 12. The Highlanders, who went 16-13 and won the Great West last year, are competing as an independent this season after the dissolution of that conference.
Tulane outrebounded NJIT 24-10 in the first half, making up for some poor shooting. The Green Wave led 35-31 at halftime despite hitting only 36.4 percent of its shots while the Highlanders connected on 52.0 percent.
The difference was shot attempts. Tulane grabbed 13 of its own misses and scored 15 second-chance points, with Drye soaring for a pair of offensive rebounds and sticking them back for layups, including the final basket of the half.
NJIT had two offensive boards and scored one point off them.
Trailing by four early, Tulane went ahead for good at 20-19 when Reynolds sank a wide open 3-pointer off a nice pass from Henson.
With seven scholarship freshmen on the roster, the Green Wave will need quick chemistry like that to exceed expectations. Conroy used only eight players and gave more than two minutes to only seven in an attempt to foster that togetherness with the guys on the court.
Conroy was happy with the free throw total — Tulane shot 30 to NJIT’s eight — and ball-handling. Although the Wave got sloppy late, finishing with nine turnovers, it had only three miscues midway through the second half.
“It’s gratifying to see those things that are the trademarks of our program — taking care of the basketball and sharing the basketball and winning the free throw battle,” Conroy said. “Our guys’ approach was right. There are just a lot of things we need to clean up as far as execution on the offense and defensive end, but our mindset in what we were trying to get done and playing as a team was there.”