COLUMBUS, Ohio – Fairleigh Dickinson came up just a little short this time.
Johnell Davis scored 29 points, Alijah Martin added 14 and Florida Atlantic ended underdog FDU’s magical March by outlasting the No. 16 seed 78-70 on Sunday night in the NCAA Tournament.
The ninth-seeded Owls (33-3) needed everything they had to put away the Knights (21-16), the nation’s smallest team and a surprise winner Friday night over 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey and top-seeded Purdue in just the second 16-over-1 upset in tournament history.
It will be FAU, not FDU, which will play Tennessee in the East Region semifinals on Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“It’s a nice place,” Davis said of the world’s most famous arena. “But we’ve still got to go in and put the work in as every other gym.”
Davis certainly put in the work against FDU, finishing with 12 rebounds, five assists and five steals in 34 minutes.
The Knights couldn’t come up with an encore after eliminating Purdue, but not before fighting to the finish.
When their tourney ended, first-year coach Tobin Anderson and FDU’s players walked across the floor of Nationwide Arena to thank their fans, most of whom never expected to spend five days in Ohio watching their team make history.
Demetre Roberts scored 20 points and Sean Moore had 14 for FDU, which didn’t even win the Northeast Conference tournament before becoming an NCAA team that won’t soon be forgotten. The Knights followed up a win in the play-in game at Dayton by ousting the Big Ten champion Boilermakers and taking FAU to the wire.
“We always talk about 6-0 runs, we were one 6-0 run away from the Sweet 16,” Anderson said. “We went toe to toe with a top-five team in the country, and this team is a top 25 team in the country. We went toe to toe the last few days with two great teams and didn’t back down, didn’t go away.
“We’re not just happy to be here.”
FAU, which edged Memphis on Friday for the school’s first NCAA tourney win, finally took control late in the second half of a game that was played at high speeds and at times looked more like a playground pickup game.
FDU was still within 67-64 when Davis fought for a rebound and made a put-back. After Roberts missed a long 3, FAU’s Bryan Greenlee knocked down a 3-pointer and the Owls pushed their lead to 10.
The Knights got within 76-70, and still had a chance when Greenlee missed two free throws. But Roberts, FDU’s lightning-quick 5-foot-8 guard, misfired on a layup, and the graduate student who followed Anderson to FDU from Division II St. Thomas Aquinas began to untuck his jersey, knowing his tournament was over.
Anderson, who turned around a program that went 4-22 a year ago, told his players not to foul and let the final seconds run off.
But FAU’s Martin tried and missed a 360-degree dunk, leading to an awkward exchange and tense postgame handshake between Anderson and Owls coach Dusty May.
“I apologized to him for that but also reminded him we’re the adults,” May said. “We’ve got to fix that behavior. It’s part of the game. I apologized to him.”
FDU came up short in its bid to become the first No. 16 to win twice in the tournament. The same thing happened to UMBC five years ago. After shocking No. 1 overall seed Virginia, the Retrievers lost to Kansas State in the second round.
Strikingly similar in their playing styles on the floor, there was also a commonality between the fan bases as “F-D-U” chants from one side of the court were met with cries of “F-A-U” from the other as the teams traded baskets.
May was proud of his team’s composure and ability to perform when it felt like the world was in FDU’s corner.
“We never felt like we were a Cinderella team,” said May, who got his hoops start as a student manager at Indiana under coach Bob Knight. “We went into an SEC school and won and have been in some very tough environments.
“But obviously when you’re playing FDU and they’re on the run they’re on, they’re easy to root for.”
For Anderson and the Knights, the tournament is over. The memories will carry them.
“Last year, we were 4-22,” he said, “and we’re right there to go to the Sweet 16. If that’s not one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my life or anybody else has seen, that’s crazy. So every part of this I’ll remember forever and they will too.”
FAU: The Owls will carry a nine-game winning streak into their matchup against the fourth-seeded Volunteers, who took out Duke on Saturday. FAU does have some experience against SEC schools this season, losing at Ole Miss and winning at Florida.
FDU: The Knights seemingly came out of nowhere to become the tourney’s biggest story. Anderson said he and his assistant coaches have already heard from players interested in joining them in Teaneck, New Jersey.