Jeff BorzelloESPN staff writer7 minutes to read
NEW YORK – All signs were pointing to another chapter in… Markquis Nowell lore, another all-time Kansas State performance in one of the greatest individual tournaments in NCAA Tournament history.
With 8:37 left in Saturday’s Eastern Conference Final against Florida Atlantic, Noel caught the ball on the right wing, used the ball screen and took a contested three-pointer on the Owls’ Jonelle Davis. She pulled back, giving the Wildcats a six-point lead. Noel ran to the court, giving his version of a Michael Jordan shrug.
It was happening again.
Then suddenly, it wasn’t.
Kansas State did not score another field goal for nearly seven minutes, with FAU leading on a 15-1 run that propelled the 9-ranked Owls to a 79-76 win over the 3-seed Wildcats.
FAU (35-3), who was in an NCAA tournament prior to this season and has not had a single NCAA Tournament win in program history, became the first No. 9 seed to reach the Final Four since Wichita State in 2013 and the ninth No. 9 or fewer to reach so far since seeding began in 1979.
The Owls will play the winner of Sunday’s South Region final between Creighton and San Diego State for a spot in the championship game.
“We always say, ‘Those kinds of shots, guys like that can’t hit enough to hit us,'” union guard Brian Greenlee said. “They might beat enough to keep him close, but eventually, they’ll run out of gas. And I feel like that’s what happened.”
Noel, fresh from his record-breaking performance against Michigan State in the Sweet 16, finished with 30 points, 12 assists, and 5 steals — but this time, he wasn’t able to get a steady production out of the supporting cast. Star teammate Keyontae Johnson was limited to eight minutes in the first half with a foul problem, and although he started the second half with several baskets, he finished with nine points and a foul at 2:44.
Despite Johnson’s struggles, Kansas State (26-10) hung in the game thanks to Noel and then seemed to have a bit of a breakaway in the second half. The Wildcats came out 6-0 at halftime to take the lead and extend it to as many as seven points with 12:02 left. But every time it seemed like Kansas State might blow the game open and keep FAU at arm’s length, the Owls responded.
Kansas State pitched five, Greenlee scored 3. Seven, Vladislav Goldin and Davis scored. Six up again, Greenlee another 3. Then, after the Wildcats extended their lead to six one last time on Nowell’s Banked 3, FAU began its drive.
The owls’ resilience has never wavered.
“A lot of times people might try to hit a home run to close that lead, and we don’t really get upset in situations where we get frustrated,” Greenlee said. “We’ve been on a lot of them. So I just take it one at a time and focus on getting the stops.”
“We know in the end we’re going to make some shots,” Goldin said. “We’re here. If we lose seven points, it doesn’t matter to us. We’re still playing.”
Halftime rounds have been the subject of all FAU tournaments. The Owls were 2.5 seconds away from being knocked out in the first round by Memphis, until Nick Boyd hit a game-winning layup to win by one point. They fell behind in the second half to 16th seed Fairleigh Dickinson in the second round, before taking a 12-2 lead at halftime. Against Tennessee in the Sweet 16, FAU used an 18-2 run to turn a six-point deficit into a 10-point lead.
“We’ve had spurts in us all year, and we were in one in the first half,” said coach Dusty Mae. “So, just staying on the track, hanging out, hanging out, and then we always run. Because of our depth, our guys think we can play harder for longer periods than all of our opponents. And it may or may not be to be honest, but we believe it.”
No matter the strength of the schedule or conference standings, 35 wins is 35 wins. And when you win that many games — which is now more than anyone else in college basketball — at some point, winning becomes part of the team’s DNA. Comeback wins, close wins, wins by any means necessary.
Moreover, as May said, there is no fear of losing.
“They were not afraid to lose the day and go home. They are not afraid of failure,” Mai said. “We put it down, and whatever happens after that is more than enough, because we did it every single day. So there’s never a moment where we get upset because we’re not afraid of what happens if we don’t get it done.” “
This calm was shown in the closing minutes, with FAU clinging to a one-point lead. Kansas State fouled Michael Forrest, who had not attempted a free throw all day, with 17 seconds left in the game. If there were any nerves on the FAU side, none of the 19,680 people inside Madison Square Garden would have noticed.
There was Mai, standing on the traction mat on the sidelines with his arms folded without any expression. It would have been the first half of the November game. It would have been a last minute late March with a place in the Final Four on the line.
Forrest caught his coach on the foul line, and calmly hit two free throws. He did the same 10 seconds later, and extended FAU’s lead again to three with 6.9 seconds left.
“Just [wanted] To get back to my training. “Every day we shoot free throws,” Forrest told ESPN. “Just to be on the free throw line, it was amazing.”
FAU entered the tournament at 300-1 to win the championship in Caesars Sportsbook and will have the longest chance of winning them all since the ratings began in 1979, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
In an upheaval-filled NCAA tournament, a tournament that featured zero one seed in the Elite Eight and a record low number of top two seeds in the Elite Eight, the 9-seed FAU team continues to run to Final Four records. Only six teams have been seeded lower into the Final Four in NCAA Tournament history than the Owls. The FAU basketball program did not move up to Division I until 1993 and had only one regular season title in program history prior to this season.
Meanwhile, this team won 20 straight games earlier this season and is now on an 11-game winning streak. The Owls were ranked in the top 25 Birds for most of the second half of the season and entered Saturday’s game ranked higher than Kansas State on most predictive metrics.
May wasn’t able to put it into perspective just yet, recalling a game earlier in the NCAA tournament when a player made a mistake and turned to an assistant coach and mentioned how it should be fixed during the offseason.
He said, “That’s kind of the way I deal.”
Entering the Eastern Conference as the lowest-ranked team at Madison Square Garden, it was FAU who imposed their style on the opposition. He outsmarted and outplayed the more physical team at the tournament in Tennessee. He made more big shots than most catchers in the tournament to date against Kansas State.
And FAU wants to respect it.
“They’ll classify us anyway, but we’re some Pit Bulls and Rottweilers,” said Alicja Martin. “We go out there and show it every night.”
Despite Noel’s long tournament heroics, on the final possession, with Kansas State trailing three seconds with 6.9 seconds remaining, he didn’t even get a chance to tie the score. Noel dribbled half the pitch and passed to Ismail Masoud, who was quickly cornered and lost the ball to Davies.
The clock had struck zero, and FAU claimed its season-leading 35th national win—the most significant at the moment.
Boyd ran into the FAU crowd, shouting, “I tried to tell you! We’re pit bulls!”
Cinderella no more.
“We’re supposed to be here,” Forrest said.
“It’s unrealistic. I want to cry, but I can’t right now,” Davis told ESPN. “I don’t really party now. We have Saturday and Monday.”
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