NEW YORK — Before last Friday, Florida Atlantic didn’t have an NCAA tournament win in the history of its men’s basketball program.
Less than a week later, the Owls have three — and they’re 40 minutes from the Final Four.
FAU came back in the second half to beat 4-seed Tennessee 62-55 in Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup and now will face 3-seed Kansas State in Saturday’s Elite Eight.
The 9-seed Owls, wearing Cinderella’s slipper? Not quite.
“We’re where we’re supposed to be,” guard Nicholas Boyd said. “We’re going to keep moving, keep working. Can’t count us out no more. We’re here to stay and we’re going to keep fighting no matter who we line up against, who we play.
“We’re going to keep making statements.”
Thursday’s win certainly qualified. Very few teams all season have been able to withstand Tennessee’s brand of physicality and defense, constantly dragging teams into a halfcourt slog. The Volunteers entered Thursday with the nation’s best defense, the nation’s best 3-point defense and a top-15 2-point defense.
Less than a week ago, Tennessee imposed its will on Duke, which had entered the NCAA tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country. And for the first 20 minutes, it looked like Thursday would be more of the same. FAU had nine first-half turnovers and shot 21.4% from 3.
Boyd realized early the Vols weren’t just another defense.
“I threw a couple passes in the beginning of the game that got deflected,” he said. “Usually in our league those are layups, so we had to adjust.”
FAU did adapt and put forth one of the most efficient second-half performances anyone has produced against Tennessee’s defense all season. The Owls had 40 points after halftime, just the ninth time this season a team scored 40 or more points in a half against the Volunteers. The Owls picked up the pace, shots started falling and driving lanes consistently opened up.
As a team that starts four players 6-foot-4 or shorter, FAU needed to impose its style on Tennessee, not the other way around.
“We stressed a few things just to open up some gaps in space so our drivers could get downhill, and then we just passed it much better,” coach Dusty May said. “We just talked about when we pass it, now we have to shot-fake, drive and just continue to get guys open shots and [keep them] off balance because they are bigger and stronger at each position. So we just needed more space to create, and then our guys banged in some shots.”
A 16-2 run midway through the second half that turned a six-point deficit into a 10-point lead flipped the game. Michael Forrest (11 points) hit a couple of 3s and then scored on a drive. Alijah Martin (nine points) buried a 3 in transition. Boyd (12 points) got to the rim. Johnell Davis (15 points) was seemingly everywhere, grabbing offensive rebounds and getting to the free-throw line despite a poor shooting night.
Suddenly, a surprisingly strong FAU cheering section made itself known.
“F-A-U!” chants rang throughout Madison Square Garden.
It didn’t feel like a small-school David making a stunning run through the big-school Goliath. FAU didn’t get hot from 3 and bury Tennessee under a barrage of outside shots. The Owls outscored Tennessee in the paint, they outrebounded the Vols, they had more second-chance points, they had more fast-break points.
It was another impressive performance in a season filled with them from FAU. The Owls ended Thursday with the most wins in the country, sitting at 34-3. They won 20 games in a row earlier this season. They’re currently on a 10-game winning streak.
“Everyone in our program certainly feels like we belong here, and a lot goes into that,” May said. “Number one, how long they’ve been able to sustain their effort, their energy, especially when you’re the hunted like they’ve been all year.”
While Kansas State will be the favorite on Saturday, FAU ranks ahead of the Wildcats in most predictive metrics. Another win shouldn’t be a surprise.
“I don’t feel like we’re Cinderella,” Boyd said. “We proved that tonight. We just played good basketball. We played as a unit, we played together and we played physical. I know we’re undersized, we’re small. … But we play hard and we play with heart.”
Added Martin: “We feel like we’re supposed to be here, doing exactly what we’re supposed to do.”