Jeff PorcelloESPN staff writer6 minutes of reading
NEW YORK — All signs point to another chapter in Markquis Nowell’s lore as one of the greatest individual runs for Kansas State in NCAA Tournament history.
With 8:37 left in Saturday’s East Regional final against Florida Atlantic, Nowell caught the ball on the right wing, used a ball screen and drained a contested, step-back 3-pointer over the Owls’ Janelle Davis. That gave the Wildcats a six-point lead. Nowell gave his version of the Michael Jordan shrug and ran down the court.
It happened again.
And then suddenly, it wasn’t.
Kansas State didn’t make another field goal for nearly seven minutes as FAU went on a 15-1 run that led the 9-seed Owls to a 79-76 win over the 3-seed Wildcats.
FAU (35-3), which made one NCAA Tournament appearance before this season and has not had an NCAA Tournament win in program history, became the first No. 9 seed to reach the Final Four since Wichita State in 2013. Ninth number. Seeds of 9 or less have never been seen since seeding began in 1979.
The Owls will play Creighton and San Diego State in Sunday’s South Region final for a spot in the championship game.
“We always say, those kinds of shots, guys like that can’t hit us as hard as they did,” FAU guard Brian Greenlee said. “They probably hit enough to keep it close, but eventually, they run out of gas. I feel like that’s what happened.”
Nowell, who accomplished his feat against Michigan State in the Sweet 16, finished with 30 points, 12 assists and 5 steals — but this time, he couldn’t get consistent production from the supporting cast. Fellow star Keyontae Johnson was limited to eight minutes in the first half by foul trouble, and although he started the second half with two baskets, he finished with nine points and fouled out with 2:44 remaining.
Despite Johnson’s struggles, Kansas State (26-10) hung in the game thanks to Nowell and then gained some separation in the second half. The Wildcats went on a 6-0 halftime run to extend it to seven points with 12:02 remaining. But every time it looked like Kansas State could break the game open and keep FAU at arm’s length, the Owls responded.
Kansas State went up by five and Greenlee hit a 3. Up seven, Vladislav Goldin and Davis scored. Back up by six, another Greenlee 3. Then, after the Wildcats extended their lead to six on a Nowells banked 3, FAU started its run.
The resilience of owls never wavered.
“A lot of times people can try to hit home runs to close that lead, and we don’t really rattle in situations where we’re down,” Greenlee said. “We’ve been in a lot of them. So we’re just taking it one possession at a time and focusing on getting stops.”
“We knew we were going to take some shots eventually,” Goldin said. “We’re here. If we’re seven points down, we don’t care. We’re still playing.”
Second-half runs have been a theme in all FAU contests. The Owls were 2.5 seconds from being knocked out in the first round by Memphis when Nick Boyd hit the game-winning layup for a one-point victory. They lost in the second round to 16th seed Fairleigh Dickinson before going on a 12-2 run midway through the half. Against Tennessee in the Sweet 16, FAU used a 16-2 run to turn a six-point deficit into a 10-point lead.
“We’ve had spurts all year,” coach Dusty May said, “and we were together in the first half. “So definitely stay in, hang around, hang around, and then always run. And because of our depth, our guys believe we can play harder for longer than all of our opponents. It may or may not be. Be real, but we believe it.”
Regardless of strength of schedule or conference ranking, 35 wins is 35 wins. When you win that many games — which is now two more than anyone else in college basketball — at some point, winning becomes part of the team’s DNA. A comeback win, a close win, a win by any means necessary.
Moreover, as May said, there is no fear of failure.
“They’re not afraid to go home losing today, they’re not afraid to lose,” May said. “We put it on the floor and whatever happens after that is enough because we’ve done it every day. So there’s no moment where we tighten up because we’re not afraid of what’s going to happen. Don’t do it.”
That composure showed in the final minutes, as FAU clung to a one-point lead. Kansas State fouled Michael Forrest, who hadn’t attempted a free throw all day, with 17 seconds left. If there were any nerves on the FAU side, none of the 19,680 in Madison Square Garden noticed.
There was May, hands folded on the drag mat at her side, standing inconspicuously. It could have been the first half of the November game; It could have secured a place in the final four by the end of March.
Forst followed his coach to the foul line and calmly knocked down two free throws. He did the same thing 10 seconds later, again extending FAU’s lead to three with 6.9 seconds remaining.
“Just [wanted] To return to my practice. Every day we all shoot free throws,” Forrest told ESPN. “For me to be at the free throw line, that was the icing on the cake.”
FAU enters the contest at 300-1 to win the championship at Caesars Sportsbook, and is the longest shot to win it all since seeding began in 1979, according to ESPN Stats & Information Research.
In an NCAA Tournament full of upsets, a tournament that featured zero 1-seeds in the Elite Eight and a record-low number of top-two seeds in the Elite Eight, the 9-seed FAU team still advanced to the Final Four. Registers. Only six Final Four teams in NCAA tournament history have been ranked lower than the Owls. FAU’s basketball program didn’t make the transition to Division I until 1993 and had the first regular-season title in program history before this season.
At the same time, this is the team that won 20 games in a row earlier this season. The Owls were ranked in the top 25 in the second half of the season and entered Saturday’s game ranked higher than Kansas State in most prognostic metrics.
May still can’t put it into perspective, recalling a game in the NCAA Tournament when a player made a mistake, and he turned to the assistant coach and noted how to fix it during the season.
“That’s how I’m wired,” he said.
Entering the East Regional as a lower-seeded team at Madison Square Garden, FAU imposed its style on its opponent. It was tough and outplayed the more physical team left in the tournament in Tennessee. It took more big shots than the most clutch player ever against Kansas State.
FAU wants its respect.
“They’re going to label us whatever they want, but we’re just some pit bulls and Rottweilers,” Alijah Martin said. “We go out there and show it every night.”
Despite Nowell’s game-long heroics, he didn’t even get a chance to tie the score on the final possession, with Kansas State on 3rd down with 6.9 seconds left. Nowell dribbled across half court and passed to Ismail Masood, who quickly got caught and lost the ball to Davis.
The clock struck zero, and FAU picked up its 35th win of the season — and for now, the most important.
Boyd ran toward the FAU crowd and shouted, “I tried to tell you! We’re pit bulls!”
Cinderella is no more.
Forrest said: “We should be here.”
“It’s unreal. I want to go in tears, but I can’t right now,” Davis told ESPN. “I’m not really celebrating right now. We have Saturday and Monday.”