NEW YORK, N.Y. — Move over George Mason, Butler, VCU, Wichita State, and Loyola Chicago.
Make room for the ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic Owls, the latest unlikely mid-major team to reach the Final Four after the extremely tight-knit and ultra-determined basketball team from Boca Raton, FL pulled off a second straight shocker with another fierce second-half rally to oust the third-seeded Kansas State Wildcats, 79-76, in the NCAA tournament East Regional final before a sellout crowd of 19,680 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
Trailing 57-50 with just over 12 minutes remaining, Florida Atlantic (which raised its nation-best season record to 35-3) went on a game-turning 22-7 surge (that ended with a smaller 15-1 spurt) to lead, 72-64, with 2:44 left and then hung on as Kansas State (which ended a surprisingly good season of its own at 26-10) was unable to get off a potential game-tying 3-pointer as time expired.
The Owls took the lead for good, 64-63, on a second-opportunity dunk by Russian center Vladislav Goldin, who was not called on the play for an offensive foul after it was determined that Kansas State defender, senior guard Desi Sills (nine points), had flopped as he fell backward to the floor.
Goldin, who was named to the East Regional All-Tournament team — along with his teammate, sophomore guard Johnell Davis, as well as senior guard Markquis Nowell (the East Regional Most Outstanding Player) and senior forward Keyontae Johnson (both from Kansas State), in addition to Michigan State guard A.J. Hoggard — helped give FAU a huge advantage that overcame another area in which the Owls were badly hurt.
FAU committed double-digit turnovers in each half and had 10 more of those (22-12) than Kansas State as the Wildcats had twice as many points off turnovers (30-15) as the Owls. But behind Goldin (14 points, game-highs of 14 total rebounds and six on the offensive glass), FAU doubled Kansas State on the backboards, 44-22, including a 14-5 edge with offensive rebounds, which led to a key 15-2 advantage for the Owls in second-chance points.
Head coach Dusty May (in his fifth year at FAU after bouncing around at five prior stops as an assistant) noted about his team’s rebounding, “We’ve done that pretty consistently all year. So, it’s not anything that we haven’t done. We have a physical group. They’re quick to the ball, and they’re really bought in to all five guys pursuing it, and they’ve done it all year. So, this wasn’t a surprise. They do it every single day in workouts and practices, as well.”
A pair of Goldin free throws gave the Owls a 24-18 lead by the midpoint of the opening half before FAU pushed that advantage to 31-24 later in the frame. The Wildcats tied the game, 34-34, with a 10-3 run before the Owls went back up by six and settled for a 42-38 halftime lead.
The game remained close in the second half until a 3-pointer by Nowell (game-highs of 30 points, 12 assists and five turnovers) answered the same by junior guard Bryan Greenlee (16 points), followed by a driving layup by junior forward Nae’Qwan Tomlin (14 points) that capped a 19-8 Kansas State stretch to start the half which put the Wildcats up by seven at the 12:02 mark.
Tomlin was the only other double-figure scorer for Kansas State besides Nowell, mainly because Johnson was unable to stay on the floor much. Johnson fouled out with 2:44 left on a loose ball foul that allowed sophomore guard Alijah Martin (team-high 17 points) the chance to sink two free throws to give FAU the game’s largest lead with an eight-point cushion.
Johnson’s foul trouble in both halves was highly problematic for the Wildcats as Kansas State’s leading scorer for the season (17.7 points per game in 34.6 minutes per game entering the night) played a season-low 18 minutes while being held to only nine points on seven shots (both matching his season-lows).
Martin said later, “Once [Johnson] got in foul trouble, it was much easier on the defensive end. He’s a guy with a strong frame, a freak athlete, and [with Johnson out], it was easy to just limit them to one possession and get stops.”
But it wasn’t over yet. Nowell kept Kansas State within 72-69 on a 3-pointer with 1:47 left but Davis (13 points, eight rebounds) responded to that with a driving, second-chance layup 30 seconds later.
A pair of Nowell free throws kept it a one-possession game with 1:06 remaining before Boyd made one of two free throws to give FAU a four-point lead with 29.9 seconds left.
On the ensuing possession, the Wildcats stayed in the game as sophomore guard Cam Carter (five points) hit his only 3-pointer of the game, from the right wing, to keep Kansas State within 75-74 with 22.8 seconds to go.
Two free throws from senior guard Michael Forrest (six points) with 17.9 seconds left made it a three-point margin again before Tomlin kept Kansas State alive (down one) with a layup roughly nine seconds later. Forrest again made two free throws to close the scoring with 6.9 seconds remaining.
With no timeouts left for the Wildcats, Nowell took the inbounds pass, dribbled across midcourt, and had room to move toward the left wing for a potential game-tying 3-pointer, but opted to move toward the middle of the floor before passing to fellow Harlem, N.Y. native, junior forward Ismael Massoud, who was far from the big factor he was with 15 points and four made 3s in Kansas State’s thrilling overtime win in the East Regional semifinals over Michigan State on the same floor, on Thursday night.
Massoud was held in check (with only five points on three shots) by FAU, particularly as the game ended. Massoud tried to come around a screen for a catch-and-shoot 3, but caught the ball with only about two seconds left and could do little with it.
Sending the opposition to the foul line — as many teams like to do in that position to avoid the possibility of surrendering a game-tying 3-pointer — never entered the equation for the Owls in that moment.
Fifth-year head coach Dusty May explained, “We had a smaller group in. We were going to switch all ball screens and make them hit a hard shot over us. We weren’t going to foul. Despite the 50/50 data split on that, we wanted to force them to hit a hard, hard shot and finish it with a rebound.”
That strategy worked. Hounded by Martin and Davis more than 35 feet from the hoop, Massoud had the ball stripped from him as time ran out on a season in which the Kansas State — like FAU — far exceeded expectations by finishing third in its conference before earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and reaching the Elite Eight after being picked to finish last in the Big 12 Conference during the preseason.
“I was trying to get Ish (Massoud) a shot,” Nowell explained on the final possession. “Coach wanted Ish to set the screen, and I waved it off because I felt like on the right side of the court, that’s where Ish hits most of his shots. And they closed out hard to him, and he didn’t get off his shot.”
Meanwhile, the Owls — who had never won an NCAA tournament game until their current tournament run — could have easily lost in each round of the tournament but continue to figure out ways to keep fighting through adversity while winning and advancing.
FAU needed a layup with a couple of seconds left to barely get by eighth-seeded Memphis by a point in the first round, got all it could handle for 38 minutes from 16-seeded Farleigh Dickinson before pulling away very late for an eight-point win in the next round, and needed an 18-2 second-half run to help turn a six-point deficit into a 10-point lead and an eventual seven-point win over fourth-seeded Tennessee in the East Regional semifinals.
Owning the nation’s second-best record (11-1) in games decided by five points or less, the Owls’ comeback mindset and ability to win close games are a couple of their biggest strengths.
“If we just stayed the course and focused on what’s important, then we would have had a spurt in us,” May believed. “We’ve had spurts in us all year and we had been on one in the first half. So, just staying the course, hang around, hang around, and then we always have a run.
“But these guys, they’re not afraid to lose today and go home. They’re not afraid of failure. We lay it on the floor and whatever happens after that is more than enough, because we’ve done that every single day.
“So, there’s never a moment when we get tight because we’re not afraid of what happens if we don’t get it done. We’ll still walk in that locker room, hug each other, complement each other for a great effort, and figure out how to immediately start getting better, and it’s been like that from day one.”
Greenlee added, “I think just continually chipping away [is the focus]. A lot of times people might try to hit home runs to close that lead, and we don’t really get rattled in situations where we’re down. We’ve been in too many of them. So [it’s] just [about] taking it one possession at a time and focusing on getting stops.”
Holding onto the ball better down the stretch was also key.
“Just slow down and really take care of the ball and be decisive when you penetrate,” Martin said, helped to turn the game for FAU. “Sometimes we’ll get down there too deep, try and make a decision and it led to turnovers and no scoring. We just had to hold off on that.”
After the Owls finished cutting the nets on the Garden floor, May say proudly, “Extremely rewarding to see a group give as much as these guys have all season — shots, playing time, minutes, everything you could imagine, grit, everything a hundred percent every day in practice, and then be rewarded, because there’s never a guarantee.
“You’re always relying on faith that you believe it’s going to happen, but you never really know. In this era where everyone wants the whole pie, these guys continued sharing the pie every single day, and this was the result. Couldn’t be more proud of a group who did it really together every single day.”
Martin added, “It feels amazing. You know, this is a group of guys that just loves to work, loves to compete. Also, we love to serve each other. We love being around each other, and it shows on the court.”
FAU’s tenacity and relentlessness impressed Nowell among other Wildcats.
“I don’t feel like we got the defensive stops that we really needed,” Nowell said. “I don’t feel like we got key rebounds that we really needed… there was guys diving on the floor, jumping out of bounds, crashing on the free throw. Give a lot of credit to them. I’m sure they’re happy, and I wish them much success.
“They got every 50/50 ball. It didn’t come down to anything else but them playing harder, them wanting it more. So, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to them.”
Leaning on a couple of early-season wins — one that counted and one that didn’t — also helped the Owls achieve their heretofore improbable accomplishments.
The first of those victories was on Nov. 19, after FAU’s third straight win (76-55, at home, over Detroit Mercy) in what was later extended to a much larger 20-game winning streak that placed the Owls in the Associated Press’ Top 25 poll.
May recalled, “[Head coach] Mike Davis — we played Detroit Mercy… and he came in the locker room… and told our guys, ‘We haven’t seen a team like you in years. This group could be special, you guys could go to the Final Four,’ and our guys are looking at me like, ‘Who is this guy?’
“But what [that] did, as we started to win and generate a little bit of buzz, I think we always kind of referred back to [that] maybe we’re a little bit better than what we thought.”
May continued, “The other moment was [when] we played… [a] closed scrimmage [against] Nova Southeastern (FL), who just won a (Division II) national championship [earlier] today. They’re the best pressing, hardest playing team we’ve ever seen, and when we beat them in a scrimmage, we said we’ve got a chance to be pretty darned good. So, hats off, Coach Crutchfield, national champion, and someone that gave us, once again, more confidence in ourselves.”
If FAU needed any additional encouragement via locker room visits from opposing coaches, they got another one from Kansas State rookie head coach Jerome Tang, who went to the visiting MSG locker room to personally tell the Owls, “Your toughness, your togetherness, your ability to make plays for each other, the way you communicate with each other, nobody can beat ya’ll. So just stay together, don’t get distracted between now and then (the Final Four). Stay locked in, keep doing what you’re doing.”
Then came the somewhat surprising part, considering the Wildcats reached their game with FAU (which featured seven ties and a dozen lead changes) after battling through 14 ties and 16 lead changes and going to the very end to beat seventh-seeded Michigan State in an overtime thriller on the same floor a game earlier, on Thursday night.
“Ya’ll are the toughest son of a guns we played all year long,” Tang added. “Just proud of ya and I’m going to be rooting for ya.”
Consistent with what the Owls have maintained after gutting out each of their wins in the NCAA tournament, FAU prefers to be thought of as belonging just where it is instead of the notion that the Owls are making an unexpected, Cinderella run like it’s mid-major, Final Four-reaching predecessors.
“They’re going to label us whatever, but we’re some pit bulls and rottweilers,” Martin insisted.
Greenlee added, “We don’t really listen to the outside noise too much. Honestly, all the things people say just fuels us to go out there and play even harder. They can say whatever they want, say we’re a Cinderella team, say we don’t belong, but we’ve constantly proven people wrong all season.”
May humorously jested, “I’m sure we’ll be picked fifth in the Final Four, but we’ll embrace that and we’ll go lay it on the line.
“When we made the tournament this year and we won a very tough league (Conference USA) — if you look around and really study our league, a tough league, we felt like this could be our moment to really captivate an area, a fan base, a student body. And, I think we’ve exceeded that moment, but there’s no reason why we wouldn’t just continue to ride this wave.”
We’ll all soon find out if they can do just that when FAU meets the winner of Sunday’s South Regional final between a couple of fellow upstarts — fifth-seeded San Diego State and sixth-seeded Creighton — in the Final Four next Saturday.