NEW YORK — A distinctly powerful NCAA Tournament story continued into the weekend on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
The cheers came loud, and they weren’t just from the people wearing navy-blue and red. The Kansas State and Michigan State fans that stuck around deep into the second half of the nightcap joined in. How could they not? These games often give way to small-school underdogs finding the backing of otherwise-would-be neutral observers.
Another infectious March Madness run from an uncommon tournament invitee had almost everyone in the stands at MSG not wearing orange at full-throat.
F-A-U! F-A-U! F-A-U! chants bounced off the walls and ceiling of MSG.
In this moment, the ninth-seeded Owls had surmounted No. 4 Tennessee, having peeled off an 18-2 run down the back stretch of the second half. The cheers rained down. And so it arrived, another salted-away win, FAU‘s 34th out of 37 games this season. It ended 62-55 to move on to to the Elite Eight. Tennessee would prove to be just another vexed opponent.
FAU is in its first regional final in program history. The school is the seventh No. 9 seed to make an Elite Eight, and just the fifth program in the past four decades to go this deep into the tournament after winning an NCAA tourney game for the first time in that very same tournament.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Owls hopped on press tables, pointed to the stands and raised their arms in jubilation. Family and friends were out-of-their-minds happy. These gleeful scenes never get old. FAU is a newcomer to this — 2023 is only the second time the Owls have qualified for the NCAA Tournament — but it’s playing like a program that gets here annually.
Among the most composed against Tennessee, it was a freshman. Nick Boyd, who scored 12 key points, could be seen strutting out of the locker room yelling, “This is my city!” shortly after FAU clinched the upset. Boyd, who grew up in nearby Garnerville, New York, was insistent afterward: FAU cannot be punked. This is no underdog story. This is what was always going to happen.
“I don’t feel like we’re a Cinderella. We proved that tonight,” Boyd said. “You look at me, I’m not the strongest guy. Go down to Mike (Forrest), he’s not the tallest guy, but we play hard and we play with heart.”
The way these things normally go is, teams that win NCAA Tournament games get their moments of joy in their locker rooms before those locker rooms are opened up to the media. Nobody told FAU the protocol. The innocence and naïveté of it all amid such bliss. You see, the players fled back out into the stands to celebrate with their family and friends, flustering NCAA officials in the process who were trying to wrangle them to the press conference and back into the locker room.
Let ’em have their fun. We’ll get the quotes eventually.
“We’re where we’re supposed to be,” Boyd said. “We’re here to stay and we’re going to keep fighting no matter who we line up against, who we play.”
Yet again, it was sophomore Johnell Davis who helped flip a loss into a win. He had 13 of his 15 points in the second half. He’s scored 56 points in the past three tournament games, and 46 of those have come post-halftime. He is a clutch player, and the team feeds off his toughness and penchant for knowing how to puncture other teams’ spirits.
“We’re going to make that run every time,” Alijah Martin said.
Every. Time. And this team shows up every. game. They proved it throughout the season. Now it can’t be denied: The Owls are legitimate Final Four contenders. You don’t get to 34-3 by accident. Dusty May has a powerhouse program that resides in the comfy environs of Boca Raton, Florida, and that juxtaposition is so sweet, it could only materialize in a sport and a tournament such as this one.
“They just stay the course and trust over the course of 40 minutes, 60, 70 possessions typically — 50 possessions in tonight’s game — that we’re going to figure it out,” May, just the sixth C-USA coach to make the Elite Eight, said.
The Owls are no paper tiger or mid-major wannabe with a gaudy record. This team has ranked among the 20-25 best teams in the sport in predictive metrics for months. Following Thursday night’s dismissal of Tennessee they jumped up to 17th at KenPom.com — four spots ahead of their next opponent, third-seeded Kansas State.
“So, so much respect for them,” May said. “We know how hard it’s going to be, but our guys aren’t going to back down. If we lose on Saturday it’s going to be because Kansas State beat us.”
We’ll see if Kansas State can do that, because only three other teams have proven capable over nearly five months.
New York City was witness to an incredible doubleheader on Thursday night. Markquis Nowell put on a performance that will be talked about in the Big and Little Apple for decades. Then FAU came in and authored another fine chapter in small-school NCAA Tournament history that has this program on the brink of the unthinkable.
Either Kansas State is getting to its first Final Four in six decades, or the school that didn’t have basketball until the 1980s will play itself into Houston on Saturday night. What an outrageous tournament we’ve found ourselves in once again.
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