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FDU Was Trying To Make History. Johnell Davis Did It Instead

COLUMBUS, OHIO - MARCH 19: Johnell Davis #1 of the Florida Atlantic Owls dunks the ball against the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights during the second half in the second round game of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 19, 2023 in Columbus, Ohio.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Fairleigh Dickinson was making people believe. FDU became the second 16-seed to beat a one-seed when they toppled Purdue Friday night, but they were 16.5-point underdogs to Florida Atlantic in the Round of 32. FAU led by double digits in the first half, and by seven at half. At times, the ninth-seeded Owls looked like they might run away with it.

They didn’t. FDU scored the first eight points of the second half to take the lead. They had the lead by as many as five for parts of the second half. They took a 54-51 lead on a beautiful Demetre Roberts reverse layup with just over nine minutes left. The crowd in Columbus was rocking.

Florida Atlantic made sure they’d quiet down. Nicholas Boyd tied it with a three. Then Johnell Davis gave the Owls the lead for good. He stole the ball from Grant Singleton—a guy with the lowest turnover rate in NEC conference play—and drove the length of the court. He eurostepped past Cameron Tweedy and got to the rim before Heru Bligen could block his shot. He scored 23 points in the second half; the exclamation point was a steal and dunk with 90 seconds to play that gave the Owls a a seven-point lead.

Davis averaged 13.5 points a game this season. He had 29 points in Sunday night’s 79-70 win over FDU. He also had 12 boards, five assists and five steals. As I first saw from Mike Lynch, he was the first player in the history of the NCAA tournament to have a stat line like that. He made history; Fairleigh Dickinson went home.

He even gave a fitting sendoff for TruTV before it is banished down my TV listings to where it belongs: near Investigation Discovery, Oxygen True Crime and the IMPACT Wrestling Channel.

The Owls are a top-25 team this year. They are 33-3. But Conference USA’s lone tourney rep got a nine seed because of a weak non-conference schedule; their lone Quad 1 win out of conference was at Florida—in mid-November. No matter. They squeaked past Memphis in the Round of 64, 66-65, on a layup by Nicholas Boyd in the final seconds. They got that final possession after the refs missed a Memphis timeout and took advantage.

It was basically a road game on Sunday. Everyone who wasn’t a Florida Atlantic fan was pulling for Fairleigh Dickinson. FDU doesn’t have a band, so the Dayton band filled in. The Flyers lost in the A-10 final and declined any postseason tournament invites in advance, so the band didn’t have anything else to do. Fairleigh Dickinson’s fight song is titled “FDU fight song,” per ESPN. Most of the arena was bopping along to that famous tune everyone knows. (Dayton’s kids learned it just before tipoff Friday.)

“We never felt like we were a Cinderella story because of our record, because of the players in that locker room,” FAU coach Dusty May said. “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, especially the way they're playing.”

Boos rained down postgame. Alijah Martin tried to do a 360 dunk just before time expired; he missed and his coach ended up apologizing. For humorless folk who like to finger-wag at youngsters, it was the Super Bowl—as if Martin hadn’t already received his comeuppance by missing! Whatever.

FAU plays Tennessee in an East Regional semifinal Thursday at MSG. They hadn’t won a tournament game before this year. Now they’re six-point underdogs to make it to the Elite 8. You might call that a Cinderella story in any other context, but for now the Owls will have to settle for being the ruthless villain.

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