COLUMBUS, Ohio — The door to the quirky dungeon in which a Virginia team sat alone for five years suddenly, inexplicably creaked open Friday night, and a shaft of light streamed in, and in that light there appeared the best sight ever known to misery.
“It hurts bad,” said Matt Painter, the Purdue coach in his 17th season who has kept his program visible and viable.
“What a night,” said Tobin Anderson, a 51-year-old man straight out of Division II who happens to coach FDU for the first season and happens to coach it beautifully.
Purdue, like Virginia, saw its plan and offense undergo a gathering disintegration as the Lilliputian opponent kept gathering mustard. Purdue, unlike Virginia, which lost by 20, kept a lukewarm hope into the closing minute, only to see it croak in disarray and send the Knights in blue charging and dancing onto the floor. Purdue, unlike Virginia, had a 7-foot-4 prospective national player of the year, Zach Edey, who got 21 points with 15 rebounds, only to see the underdogs hound the other players into 16 turnovers and 5-for-26 three-point shooting.
Purdue, like Virginia, wound up as the backdrop as people began to answer the question, What the hell do those initials mean?
“UMBC” meant “University of Maryland Baltimore County” in Virginia’s forlorn case, while “FDU” means Fairleigh Dickinson University, the school from Teaneck, N.J., which prefers to go by its initials after going by its formal name when, for instance, it held a 10-point lead in 1985 over No. 1 seed Michigan before succumbing 59-55. Its win here not only helped spectators maybe even know what they meant when they began chanting, “FDU! FDU!” It also threw light onto a small bale of oh-my-goodness facts.
Here they go: FDU (21-15) is the shortest team among the 68 that made the tournament. It went 4-22 last season. It plucked Anderson on the tardy date of May 3 from his nine years at Division II St. Thomas Aquinas. It finished second in the Northeast Conference and also in the NEC tournament, which might have brought the offseason except that the winner, Merrimack, was ineligible for March Madness because of the rule that binds programs that have just moved up in division.
“We all have a chip on our shoulder,” Anderson said. “People say we shouldn’t be here, we shouldn’t be in the tournament, all that kind of stuff we have to listen to.” And its naivete in these levels shone after FDU wiped out Texas Southern, 84-61, in its First Four game Wednesday night in nearby Dayton, Ohio, after which Anderson told his team that the scouting had led his staff to believe it could beat Purdue, but a camera recorded him for all to see, hear and use for motivation.
Then finally, this nugget: FDU became the second straight smallish school from New Jersey to fell Purdue, with St. Peter’s having chased it from the 2022 Sweet 16. “It’s a really hard thing,” Painter said. “We worked very hard and have done things the right way in our program. And I think six straight years we’ve been a top-five seed. And that’s all you try to do. You just try to fight to get in the best position possible. And now we get in the best position possible and this happens.”
If it looked like it probably wouldn’t happen even with FDU’s 32-31 lead at halftime, it looked like it most probably wouldn’t happen as Purdue (29-6) carefully built a 46-41 lead with 12 minutes left. But FDU kept its waves of pressure rippling, especially from three players who followed Anderson out of Division II to this shiny perch: forward Sean Moore from Columbus itself scoring 19 points with five rebounds and guards Demetre Roberts, who scored 12 points with four rebounds and four assists, and Grant Singleton, who scored eight points with six rebounds and five assists.
More than that, their defense made Purdue look flustered, then unsure, then rickety, then lost. “Their pressure was nothing we haven’t seen before,” Purdue freshman guard Fletcher Loyer said. “But it was constant. And really when you’re playing with guys coming from behind you the whole time you’ve got to have eyes in the back of your head a little bit.”
He concluded, “I think we got a little rattled.”
The Knights made catches difficult for Edey, popped the ball from him when he did catch and rendered him a non-factor across the closing, befuddling minutes. At his locker in a desolate locker room as he told of his love for his teammates, he said FDU had used all guards except a “faceup four there most of the time” and that he “kind of had to learn on the fly a little bit in the game.”
Anderson said FDU noticed that Edey’s scoring average varied little — from 24 to 23 — whether Purdue won or lost, so the emphasis shifted to the other guys — to FDU’s fifth-year guards against Purdue’s freshman guards, for one thing.
Meanwhile, Roberts made an unfazed 12-foot jump shot with a free throw attached to get the score to 46-44, then Singleton banged in a three-point shot from the left to get things all caught up at 49-47 in FDU’s favor. Once Purdue’s Brandon Newman fumbled at the perimeter with 8:23 left, and Moore surged downcourt for a layup plus a foul for a 52-50 lead, FDU never trailed.
“I can’t even explain it,” Moore said. “I’m shocked right now. I can’t believe it. It’s crazy. But it feels amazing.”
Where he didn’t appear shocked, however, was 63 seconds from the end, with the game still teetering at 58-56 and Moore suddenly open at the top of the key for the kind of shot he can relive until he’s 100. As he let fly, he also let on a little skit, keeping the hands from his follow-through outstretched in the kind of confidence FDU had amassed.
When it swished, the score stood 61-56 with 1:03 left.
From there, after two free throws by Loyer with 55 seconds left, Purdue’s possessions went haywire. One began with 29 seconds left but veered into such hopelessness that Painter called a timeout with 18 seconds left. That resulted in a guarded air ball from the corner with 12 seconds left, then a foul to send FDU to the line with eight seconds left.
“If we played them 100 times,” Anderson said, “they’d probably beat us 99 times. Play them 100 times, we have one win. But tonight’s was the one.”
Roberts’s two shots went swish and swish, and the score stood at 63-58, where it would stay, and doom looked nigh for Purdue, as much as company looked nigh for Virginia.