Columbus, Ohio — No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson, the shortest team in men’s college basketball, beat 7-foot-4 Purdue big man Zack Eddy on Friday, setting up a shocking NCAA tournament upset that embodies tradition. From underdog mad march.
The game unleashed scenes of euphoria and amazement at Nationwide Arena, the NHL’s home to the Blue Jackets, as thousands of Purdue fans swarmed the Indiana frontier in anticipation of the championship-winning Big Ten team beginning a long march to the Final Four.
Instead, when the final buzzer sounded, the Fairleigh Dickinson players raced to the middle of the field, screaming wildly and making up a rant in front of their fans, who used cell phone cameras to record the most famous win in the school’s athletic history. The coaches and staff on the team jumped into each other’s arms. Much of the crowd was left standing, staring at the scene.
“I can’t even explain it. His team is ahead, 63-58,” said Sean Moore, the young forward who led Fairleigh Dickinson with 19 points, after the final game. “I can’t believe it.”
The win marked the second time the No. 16 seed had surpassed #1 in a single-elimination tournament, following University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s victory over Virginia in 2018 by 20 points. On the women’s side, No. 16-ranked Harvard beat No. 1 Stanford in the 1998 tournament.
FDU, located in Teaneck, N.J., across the Hudson River from upper Manhattan, had never advanced to the second round of a tournament before Friday. It had to defeat Texas Southern on Wednesday in a play-only game for the right to play Purdue, which just won the Big Ten championship on Sunday.
“If we played them 100 times, they probably would have beaten us 99 times,” FDU first-year head coach Tobin Anderson said after the game. His team – short, young and submissive with 23 points – “must be unique,” he said. “We had to be unconventional.”
Purdue struggled in almost every aspect of the game. Usually sharp from long range, she shoots less than 20 percent from the three-point line. As it outlasted its shorter opponent, FDU grabbed 11 crucial offensive rebounds, slowing Purdue’s momentum as it tried to regain control.
Purdue has frequently allowed FDU’s young guards, who are in and out of the game like a hockey team, to slide around the screens for an easy look at the basket. However, FDU, which topped the majority of the game, was a bit inconsistent, shooting less than 40 percent.
But his defense, including regular full-court pressure and Eddie’s double-teaming, stunned Purdue’s elaborately designed offense, which manages more than 250 plays.
“A lot of times they have one guy guarding behind and another who sits on my lap,” said Eddy, likely National Player of the Year, after the game, frustrated. He finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, a stat streak that usually felt stale on a Friday night.
“It stings,” said Matt Painter, Purdue coach since 2005. He added that FDU “played better than we did”. “They trained better than we did.”
“They were great,” said the painter.
It was the third year in a row that Purdue had lost to a double-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament, a sign that Friday’s defeat may not have been a fluke. But his loss to FDU amounted to the most serious failure yet in a system that prioritizes little-known local recruits without the NBA fanfare of quality players drawn to other college basketball powerhouses. Focusing on player development over several years, Purdue has mostly rejected the transfer portal that other major programs have eagerly traded to deepen their rosters.
That notion was a point of stubborn pride for Rassam, who reached the last 16 six times but never advanced to the fourth round. On Friday, he said his collection this season “did things the right way.”
Nearly two months after being named the nation’s best team this season, the second year in a row they’ve achieved the feat, Purdue players believe their team is positioned to win the national championship. Mason Gillis, one of the team’s forwards, said what he said Thursday as far as his team was preparing for FDU “We have the chops,” he said confidently.
FDU is one of the most unexpected successes in college basketball. It is the shortest team in Division I–of 363 teams–with an average of only 6-foot-1. Almost every player at Purdue had a significant height advantage, including Eddie, who regularly guarded a player a full foot shorter.
FDU finished last season 4-22 and was selected to finish sixth in the preconference coaches poll. She rebounded with 20 wins this season. The Knights claimed an automatic bid to the Northeast Conference, but never actually won their conference tournament. They fell in the final to Merrimack, who is up from Division II and ineligible for the NCAA Tournament.
Anderson, the FDU coach, warned in a postgame celebration after Wednesday’s win that his team might match Purdue, a confidence that blighted Purdue before the game. “The more I see Purdue, the more I think we can beat them,” Anderson said in the team’s locker room after Wednesday’s game.
On Friday, he said he feels bad about the perceived insult. But his players indicated that their coach had been validated. “We showed why we belong here,” said Demeter Roberts, a 5-foot-8 guard who raced around Purdue’s taller guards on his way to a 12-game lead.
“We all have a chip on our shoulder,” Anderson said.
Just a year earlier, Anderson had been the head coach of St. Thomas Aquinas School, a Division II school in Sparkell, New York, where he coached Moore, a Columbus native who joined him at Fairleigh Dickinson. Anderson was a “mill,” the painter said admiringly after Friday’s commotion.
Purdue fans vastly outnumbered FDU supporters, filling the arena with noise as its mascot, the Purdue Pete, marched around the field to the irritation of the school’s many pockets. But as the game progressed, with FDU keeping close, “FDU” cheers began to ring out both from its humble group of fans and from supporters of Memphis and Florida Atlantic, teams that were scheduled to play in the same stadium later that Friday night. .
Purdue seemed to have the game back in the first 10 minutes of the second half, when it leaned heavily on Eddie, a potential National Player of the Year, who frequently lobbed balls toward his teammates like a volleyball player.
Anderson described a recipe for Eddie’s neutralization: choke his teammates. Anderson noted that Eddie performs similarly well in Purdue’s wins and losses. The difference, he said, was limiting the group of talented players around Eddie hitting the ball from deep or cutting to the hoop when Eddie was on a double or triple. Anderson said that when Eddie’s support team struggles, his team suffers.
Eddie landed several emphatic strikes in the second inning as he worked to control the game, groaning after the throws. The Boilermakers gained a 6-point lead that would have been insurmountable. The nervous looks the Purdue coaches fired at each other seemed to come easy.
But FDU, brave and tough, scored 8 unanswered points to regain control. The rest of the game was a tense back-and-forth, with the score within one possession until Moore scored a layup with 1 minute and 26 seconds remaining, effectively sealing his team’s lead.
Painter said his team failed to reorient itself as he shot poorly and struggled to break free of FDU’s defensive traps. He said, “When people put pressure on you like that, you should go get a penalty shootout.” “You should get shots wide open.”
He seems to have absorbed the shock waves sent by Purdue’s loss during the tournament — more than 96 percent of fans picked Purdue to win this game in ESPN bracket contests, and Perfect arches are not left for men on the site after Friday night, in part, of course, due to other turmoil around the tournament.
“You’ll be laughed at. You’ll be ashamed,” said the painter. “It’s basketball.”
Purdue had a chance to tie the game with less than 10 seconds left in the game. But FDU made one last stand on their fierce defense, trapping Fletcher Loyer, a sharp-shooting rookie guard, in the corner. Loyer attempted a desperate shot, missing badly, as Eddie watched from the low post.
Lauer sat alone in his locker after the game, staring straight ahead, dazed. He said it was the kind of shot he had been dreaming of.
Billy Weitz contributed reporting.
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