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Mike Lopresti | | March 20, 2023

Unwavering against Cinderella, Florida Atlantic steps up to earn first Sweet 16 berth

Johnell Davis scores 29 to send FAU to Sweet 16

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Two days later, nothing had seemingly changed in Nationwide Arena, where high seeds have come this week to perish.

The same incessant chants from Friday night that no doubt now rattle the sleep of the Purdue Boilermakers.


The same chance for Fairleigh Dickinson to make history. In a way, even bigger history — for a while a No. 16 seed had only won one game in the NCAA tournament before; it had never won two.

The same fearless attack by a group of Knights players who were totally oblivious to what the numbers and odds suggested should be their limit.

There Fairleigh Dickinson was, charging into a five-point lead in the second half — haven’t we seen this movie before? — seemingly all ready to charm the nation again and take out another giant. Only this time the giant was . . .

Florida Atlantic?

Well, the No. 9 Owls were seeded seven spots higher, anyway. That nearly qualifies as the big bully on the block. But really. They won their first NCAA game in history Friday night.

“We never felt like a Cinderella story because of our record, because of the players in that locker room,” Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May would say later. “But we did feel we would be able to get the common fan or the extras on our side if we did play Purdue. But obviously when you’re playing FDU and they’re on the run they’re on, they’re easy to root for.”

No, as Florida Atlantic guard Alijah Martin had said of this game, “Just two underdogs going at it. There are a lot of guys that dream of getting to this moment and now we are here, so we are going to see who makes the most of it.”

Now we know.

No. 1 seed Purdue did not get out of this building alive. Nor did No. 2 Marquette.

But Florida Atlantic did.

No fluke here. They Owls are 33-3 for a reason. They went into Florida in November and beat the Gators for a reason. They’re going to the Sweet 16 for a reason. They’re about to play Madison Square Garden for a reason.

“We knew this team was going to be good. But it’s unimaginable. It’s a dream come true,” guard Nick Boyd said in the locker room after Florida Atlantic outlasted Fairleigh Dickinson 78-70. It was Boyd, by the way, who sliced into the lane and beat Memphis almost at the buzzer Friday night. He had no time to savor his big moment the past two days, or all the messages he’s been getting from people he hadn’t heard from in ages. But maybe now.

“I think I’m going to savor the team,” he said.

And why not? Fairleigh Dickinson threw the same frenzied defense it used on Friday. Purdue had wilted then. But look what Florida Atlantic did.

Seven turnovers for the game. Nearly 48 percent in 3-point shooting the second half. When the Owls lost an early 11-point lead and the Knights went five up with 12 minutes left, there was a strong and noisy whiff of an upset. That could have shaken them. It had turned the Purdue offense into jelly.

“It just brings the best out of us,” said guard Johnell Davis. Especially him. Want to see what the individual game of the tournament so far looks like? His 29 points and 12 rebounds and five assists and five steals and one lone turnover in 34 minutes pushed Florida Atlantic to midtown Manhattan. The Owls’ train kept rolling and he was the locomotive. “I really don’t care about the stats. My team just kept feeding me the ball. Shots going in. I put the work in, and it shows in the box score.”

🔥 Johnell Davis' record-setting performance against FDU 

Florida Atlantic kept applying the heat like the 33-game winner it is, and the FDU magic finally ebbed.

“We stay together, we stay poised,” Boyd said. “We know with our depth we can wear people down. They were physical and scrappy but as the game went on, we were able to wear them down.”

Surprised to see Florida Atlantic headed for New York City? At least one coach out there isn’t.

When the Owls blew through Detroit Mercy by 21 points in November, Titans coach Mike Davis made it a point to stop by their locker room. Davis and May go back to the Indiana days, when Davis was an assistant coach and May a student manager.

Sunday night, May could still recite Davis’ words to his team.

“You guys may not believe it but there’s going to be about five real basketball teams that are all about the team, no individual ego. And where you guys are right now, if you keep going, you could be one of those five and you could be one of the best teams in the country.”

Four months later, Florida Atlantic is in the Sweet 16.

“Everyone in our locker room, their eyes were as wide as eyes could be,” May said of his team’s reaction to Davis that night. “So at that point they started to think like, maybe we are better than what we thought going into it.

“I think as we won, our work ethic, our work capacity increased instead of feeling too good about ourselves.”

✍🏼 We're tracking every upset in the 2023 men's tournament

By Sunday night, nothing was going to stop the team picked to finish fifth in Conference USA before the season. Not even Cinderella with a five-point lead. As charismatic a story as Florida Atlantic has become, there had to be some national regret to see Fairleigh Dickinson exit the stage. But the Knights didn’t go easily, given how radically their world had changed in two days.

“I’ve been coaching 21 years. I’m 51 years old,” said coach Tobin Anderson. “I walk out there to peek at the Michigan State game and there’s people wanting to get a picture with me. Who wants to get a picture with me 48 hours ago? My wife might want to get a picture of me, my kids might want a picture of me.

“Imagine being 19, 20 years old, all of a sudden you’ve got cameras around, people around, they’re on ESPN. I was proud of the fact that we didn’t let that bother us too much.”

Indeed, they were close to another chapter in the fairy tale. But May credited Florida Atlantic’s “belief we’ve been in these situations before numerous times and we found a way. And usually, it’s different ways.”

This time, they didn’t blink at the FDU! FDU! FDU chants. Not like Purdue.

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