“You know, they’re going to label us whatever, but we’re some pit bulls and rottweilers.” These were the words of FAU’s Alijah Martin after the Owls cut down the nets on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, punching their ticket to the Final Four.
Even if FAU had never gone on this tournament run, which was at risk at many different times, the season would’ve been a major success for the program, but this team has been prepared for the moment.
“This isn’t a dream season because we’re 34-3 or whatever we are.” head coach Dusty May said on Friday, “It’s a dream season because of how these guys are every single day. We won 20 games in a row, and these guys didn’t change up a bit. They were more determined. They had better attitudes. They shared the spotlight even more during that.”
It’s on display for the world to see now, with the Owls in the Final Four, but how did they get here, just two games away from the first national championship in program history?
The Owls season didn’t open as you’d expect, suffering a loss to SEC bottom-dweller Ole Miss, but the initial defeat would spark a 20-game undefeated run. FAU didn’t pick up its second loss until early February and later won seven of their last eight to earn the No. 1 seed at the Conference USA Championship.
Having breezed past Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and UAB, FAU secured the conference’s NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2002.
Here’s how Dusty May and his contingent continued their success into March:
Round of 64: vs. No. 8 Memphis
Ninth-seeded FAU’s Final Four run almost didn’t happen, and their season almost ended without a single NCAA Tournament win to show for their incredible regular season. Many people (including us here at Mid-Major Madness), believed that FAU and Memphis were both underseeded, and the committee once again screwed over two great non-power-conference teams by making them play each other in the first round.
In the waning moments of the game, with the Owls trailing Memphis 65-64, Kendric Davis attempted to break the press with a pass, but it was deflected by Brandon Weatherspoon, and picked up by Nick Boyd, who then passed the ball to Johnell Davis. The controversy is here, where Davis loses the ball, and while many believe that Memphis clearly had possession, the officials signaled a held ball.
With the possession arrow in favor of the Owls, May had a timeout, and a baseline inbound play to draw up with 5.5 seconds and a chance to win the game. Boyd caught the ball on the weak side corner, dribbled into the paint, and finished a tough layup with 2.5 seconds left, the final basket in a dramatic victory for FAU. Just 33% of brackets on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge correctly predicted FAU’s victory over Memphis.
Overall, it was a game that showed off the depth of the lineup for FAU. Backup center Giancarlo Rosado led the way with 15 points and was one of four Owls in double figures. Boyd was not one of them and didn’t have a single turnover. The Owls held Memphis’ star guard Kendric Davis to 16 points on 5-for-15 shooting, his lowest scoring output in a game in which he played at least 20 minutes since January.
Round of 32: vs. No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson
While the Knights were the biggest underdog story this March, the Owls put an end to FDU’s run with a 78-70 defeat. Davis led the way with 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and five steals to become the first player in NCAA Tournament history with a 25/10/5/5 performance.
However, this was a game of runs which kept the Knights close throughout despite Vlad Goldin and Martin combining for the first nine points and the Owls leading 32-25 at half. It would be Joe Munden Jr. and Sean Moore opening the second half with eight straight points to give the Knights their first lead. That started a 12-minute stretch with six lead changes and four ties.
Just before the under-eight timeout, a Boyd three and a pair of layups from Davis extended the Owls lead to four which was just enough to start pushing away from Tobin Anderson’s squad. Following the break, a Bryan Greenlee three and another layup from Davis would put FAU ahead by seven. Davis scored 14 of the Owls’ final 17 points.
Davis finished with his historic game on 10-of-16 shooting while teammate Martin hit double-digits with 14 points to help send FAU to New York City for a battle with No. 4 Tennessee. Only 5.5% of brackets on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge had the Owls advancing as far as the Sweet 16.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 4 Tennessee
In New York, the Owls announced themselves to the world. It was easy to ignore the one point win in the 8 vs. 9 game, and beating a 16 seed, but it became impossible to ignore the Owls after they went on a run in the second half to take down the fourth-seeded Tennessee Volunteers 62-55.
After Tennessee took control of the game early, leading by as many as nine multiple times in the first half, FAU went into the break trailing by just five points.
The first seven minutes of the second half were going about the same way, with no team scoring back to back buckets, and the Vols leading by six. That’s when the switch was flipped. A David layup, followed by back-to-back threes, and a layup from Michael Forrest, the lone senior on the team, put the underdog Owls up by four points.
When 3-pointer gave FAU a seven point lead, Uros Plavsic was called for a flagrant foul away from the ball, and FAU capitalized by extending the lead to 10 points within the next minute. That was part of an 18-2 run, during which FAU totally turned the game.
Davis led the way with 15 points, and Boyd grabbed eight rebounds to lead the team.
After shooting 3-for-14 from deep in the first half, the Owls shot 5-for-13 in the second. They held Tennessee to just 6-for-23 from the game.
Only 1.8% of ESPN Tournament Challenge entries had FAU going this far, but they weren’t done yet.
Elite Eight: vs. No. 3 Kansas State
Another back-and-forth battle would characterize the Owls’ Elite Eight pairing with the Wildcats as Greenlee, Martin and Davis all contributed to open the scoring for FAU. The game was tied 18-18 by the under-12 timeout. A 10-4 run from the Owls would be answered by the Wildcats with a 10-3 run of their own, and the game of runs began. FAU led 42-38 at halftime.
Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson fought back to take a 44-42 advantage early into the second half, but this once again sparked an Owls response with five straight to regain the lead. FAU used a 15-1 run to take a 72-64 edge heading into the final three minutes.
While K-State was able to generate a 10-3 run to combat the soaring Owls and inch back within one at 75-74 with just 29.9 seconds on the clock, unlikely hero Michael Forrest iced the game by going 4-for-4 from the free throw line.
Despite just .8% of brackets on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge selecting the Owls to do so, they booked a spot in the Final Four with a 79-76 win over Kansas State. FAU had four scorers see double-digits: Martin, Greenlee, Davis and Goldin.
Having now knocked down Penny Hardaway and Memphis, red-hot Fairleigh Dickinson, a physical Tennessee team, and the Markquis Nowell/K-State show, this will be the first time in program history that FAU has a chance to compete for a national championship at the Final Four.