NEW YORK — Florida Atlantic began the season as a speck on the college basketball landscape, a program bereft of past achievements and future expectations. The Owls started the NCAA tournament as a curious No. 9 seed, a mystery from a smallish conference with a massive pile of wins. They are now one of four teams that could win the national championship. They will end the year in a cavernous football stadium in Houston.
Saturday evening at Madison Square Garden, Florida Atlantic’s 35th victory of the season crowned one of the most stunning arrivals in the sport’s history. The Owls — hoot! — advanced to the Final Four with a 79-76 victory over third-seeded Kansas State, the latest milestone for a school that had never won an NCAA tournament game as of 10 days ago. Next Saturday night, in a sign of a democratic college basketball moment, the Owls will face either San Diego State or Creighton for the right to play for the national title.
Moments after the final buzzer sounded with the Wildcats unable to hoist a game-tying shot, the Owls huddled around Dusty May, a 46-year-old who was a manager for Bobby Knight as an Indiana student and now verges on full-blown coaching stardom. May had told coaching friends in the offseason he believed he might have a special team. He could not have imagined his Owls standing on the floor of the world’s most famous arena, a stage being built behind them and ladders being placed underneath baskets.
Moments later, an Owl mascot watched players climb those ladders and snip and snip the net. One player turned to another and said, “Yo, man, we’re going to the Final Four.” A student-manager wiped away tears. Players passed around the East Region trophy.
“It feels like a dream, how special this season has been,” FAU Athletic Director Brian White said.
Trailing by seven in the second half, FAU held Kansas State scoreless for more than five minutes and ground down the Wildcats with rebounding muscle, outside shooting and the interior might of 7-foot-1 Russian center Vladislav Goldin, who finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Alijah Martin, a sophomore guard from Summit, Miss., with the word “fearless” tattooed on his right triceps, led the Owls with 17 points, drilling a succession of clutch three-pointers.
The Owls withstood another incandescent performance from Kansas State point guard Markquis Nowell, the 5-foot-8 joy machine from Harlem who seized this NCAA tournament by the throat. Nowell scored 30 points and added 12 assists, keeping the Wildcats alive even as leading scorer Keyontae Johnson sat much of the game in foul trouble before ultimately fouling out.
“I’m happy and grateful that I got the opportunity to play in Madison Square,” Nowell said. “I always dreamed of something like this, just playing here, being here, playing my heart out.”
Nobody saw the Owls coming. Nobody could have. May had finished each of his first four years with a winning record, a feat considering FAU only had five of those in its entire Division I history before he arrived. But FAU had not reached even the NIT under May. It was picked to finish fifth in mid-major Conference USA, behind teams such as North Texas and Western Kentucky. The Owls did not appear in the top 25 until mid-January.
And yet they sensed a breakthrough approaching. They won 19 games last season and, in May’s estimation, would have won five or so more if not for injuries and inexplicable losses. They returned their six leading scorers and sharpshooting guard Nick Boyd, sidelined all of last season with an injury. Those players bonded over their belief they could turn an invisible program into a national factor.
Even still — the Final Four? “That never crossed my mind,” Martin said. White, the athletic director, was posed a hypothetical Saturday evening as he stood underneath a rim with no net: What if he had been told back in the fall that FAU would win, say, 26 games and make the Sweet 16?
“Which pinkie do I got to give?” he said. “I might have given a pinkie for the NCAA tournament run.”
By the time they had survived Memphis, dusted Farleigh Dickinson and beaten Tennessee, the Owls felt at home at the sport’s highest echelon. On a whiteboard in their locker room, next to diagrams of plays and a list of key points, somebody had written: “We Are Built For This Moment.”
Martin eliminated any doubt early, when he spotted an open lane, drove to the rim and saw David N’Guessan, a 6-foot-9 forward. Giving up seven inches, Martin leaped and jammed the ball over his outstretched hand, then screamed as he ran down the court.
“As soon as I saw it, I was like, ‘We’re here. We belong here,’ ” Goldin said. “I wasn’t scared.”
The Owls built a four-point halftime lead, which felt like a victory for Kansas State because Johnson had sat from 12:01 until the final 19 seconds of the half with two fouls. When Johnson returned early in the second half, he led a barrage that lasted until the Wildcats had seized a 57-50 lead.
In the huddle, Boyd told teammates: “We’re good. We’re good.” Their defensive game plan centered on wearing down Nowell, whom they knew would play every single minute. May had conceded Nowell’s quickness, intelligence and deep shooting could not be stopped. But the Owls believed if they made him work, they could outlast him.
“Because of our depth, our guys believe that we can play harder for longer periods than all of our opponents,” May said. “And it may not be true. But we believe it.”
Johnson picked up another two fouls, sending him to the bench with roughly 14 minutes left. Nowell threatened to make it moot, but eventually the Owls’ plan worked. Nowell made only eight of 21 shots. As Nowell tired, FAU held Kansas State scoreless for nearly five minutes and without a field goal for more than seven.
“He had amazing stats,” Martin said, “but he wasn’t efficient.”
FAU players call themselves pit bulls. “Pit bulls aren’t the biggest dog, but they’re rowdy,” Boyd said. “They’re violent.” FAU outrebounded the bigger Wildcats. They kept chipping away until Goldin snared an offensive rebound, knocked Desi Sills to the ground and jammed a thunderous, one-handed slam. The Owls led 64-63, their first lead in more than 10 minutes, and wouldn’t trail for the final four minutes.
The Owls’ lead eventually ballooned to eight. Nowell brought the Wildcats back, but Ismael Massoud fumbled Nowell’s pass on Kansas State’s final possession. Nowell walked away, eyes wide and hands on the sides of his head. Martin raised his index finger in the air and stared into a red-clad section of fans chanting: “F-A-U! F-A-U!”
Back in Boca Raton, Fla., the effect of the victory would be “astronomical,” White said. In any way that it can, Florida Atlantic brands its campus as paradise. The school is 1.8 miles from the ocean, a fact the school repeats so often that fans roll their eyes or laugh. Their home court is painted with a seaside scene. They will return home with nets around their neck and a regional trophy. Then their season will continue.
“Next week,” White said, “Houston is paradise.”