DAYTON, Ohio — Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda pulled off his jacket and began lifting and twirling players, assistants and anyone else within arm’s reach on Tuesday after his team completed a double-digit comeback to clinch the first NCAA tournament win in school history.
Herenda’s Knights dug themselves out of an early hole to beat Prairie View A&M 82-76 in the opening game of the First Four in Dayton. Herenda’s players said they found motivation to fight back from their head coach, who is less than a year removed from a life-threatening trip to the hospital while attending last season’s Final Four.
“I just wanted to leave the hospital,” Herenda said from Fairleigh Dickinson’s locker room Tuesday. “I didn’t have a dream like this. I just wanted to leave alive and get back to work. Now it’s very surreal. There are so many coaches out there that deserve this same feeling. I’m fortunate to have it.”
Herenda checked himself into a hospital in San Antonio last April after a couple days of not feeling well. Doctors discovered two clots in his blood and kept him in the intensive care unit for eight days. He stayed in Texas for two weeks before returning to campus in New Jersey. It took him most of the offseason to return to full strength, and he dialed back the amount of time he spent in the office and around his team during workouts.
Fairleigh Dickinson players and assistants said seeing Herenda around the gym gave them an extra edge as they prepared for the season. Herenda said his players sensed that he needed help and became more accountable when he took a step back from his normal intense coaching style while he recovered. Assistant Patrick Sellers said Herenda’s “North Jersey, hard-nosed toughness” set the tone for this year’s team.
“Greg is a North Jersey guy. He’s a hard-nosed guy,” Sellers said. “When he went down, it hit all of us pretty good because we’re so used to seeing the tough guy. Once he was back on his feet and able to come around, he was giving us that toughness.”
Sophomore guard Jahlil Jenkins, who scored 20 of his 22 points during the Knights’ second-half comeback, said seeing the coach fight his way back to good health this summer imbued the team with a hard-working attitude that came to light during a rough start to Tuesday’s game.
“We knew we had to fight for him,” Jenkins said. “He doesn’t really talk about it too much, but it motivates us, and we know we have to keep fighting like he did.”
Prairie View A&M opened a 19-6 lead thanks to some strong 3-point shooting in the first 10 minutes of the tournament’s first game. Senior Darnell Edge, who finished with a game-high 33 points, helped keep the Knights within striking distance at halftime. Jenkins caught fire early in the second half to fully close the scoring gap.
“We got punched in the mouth,” Herenda said. “And we got back up off the ropes.”
Fairleigh Dickinson flies to Utah tonight in preparation for its next game against No. 1-seeded Gonzaga on Thursday.