FAU became the first team to clinch a spot in the Final Four with a 79-76 victory over Kansas State in a thrilling Elite Eight contest Saturday at Madison Square Garden. The No. 9 seed Owls trailed 57-50 with 12 minutes remaining but rallied behind a balanced scoring effort and some clutch late defense as the No. 3 seed Wildcats went more than six minutes without a field goal late in the game.
Still, K-State managed to whittle an eight-point deficit down to a single point with 24 seconds left when Cam Carter hit a huge 3-pointer and then again on a Nae'Qwan Tomlin layup with eight seconds remaining. But Michael Forrest calmly hit 4 of 4 free throws in the final 30 seconds to keep the Owls ahead. After he drilled two with 6.9 remaining, Kansas State could not get a potential game-tying shot off.
The win continues a magical run for the Owls, who are in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in program history. Prior to last week, the school had never won a game in any basketball postseason tournament. All of the sudden, it has reeled off four straight victories and is two wins away from becoming the worst-seeded team to ever win the national title.
Kansas State star Keyontae Johnson played just 18 minutes while battling foul trouble and could never get in a rhythm while missing long chunks of action. He fouled out with 2:44 remaining having scored just nine points. K-State guard Markquis Nowell became the second player since assists became an official stat in 1984 to post 20 points and 10 assists in back-to-back NCAA Tournament games, but it wasn't quite enough.
FAU is the third No. 9 seed since Wichita State in 2013 and Penn in 1979 to advance to the Final Four. The Owls will play the winner of Sunday's South Regional final between No. 5 seed San Diego State and No. 6 seed Creighton in Houston next Saturday.
As has been the case all season for FAU, success was a joint effort. Johnell Davis, Vladislav Goldin, Bryan Greenlee and Alijah Martin each scored between 13 and 17 points. Forrest finished with just six but hit the clutch free throws. Even Brandon Weatherspoon, who entered ninth on the team in average minutes, provided huge a huge contribution with seven points.
Davis was FAU's only player who logged more than 30 minutes as the Owls continued to use their excellent depth as an advantage. In addition to depth, free-throw shooting also stood out as a difference-making intangible in the outcome. FAU hit 18 of 22 attempts while K-State made just 12 of 18 and only 6 of 10 in the second half. The Owls finally had their first good 3-point shooting performance of the tournament by hitting 9 of 23 attempts from beyond the arc. But K-State's 10-of 22-mark was better. In the end, FAU simply outplayed its Big 12 foe down the stretch in the World's Most Famous Arena with a spot in the Final Four on the line.
Historic run for Owls
The debate over whether FAU deserves the title of "Cinderella" is valid. The Owls are now 34-3 and would have been deserving of an at-large bid to the Big Dance even if they hadn't won the Conference USA Tournament. They are not exactly a gritty underdog like the No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson team that the defeated in the second round. However, as a No. 9 seed without much basketball history, they align more closely with teams like 2018 Loyola-Chicago (a No. 11 seed) than a group like the 2022 North Carolina team that reached the Final Four as a No. 8 seed.
In terms of unexpected runs, this team belongs in the same category as the 2018 Ramblers and No. 9 seed Wichita State from 2013. Others in the class of wholly unpredictable 21st century Final Four teams are the 2011 VCU team, which was a No. 11 seed, and the 2006 George Mason team that also made it as a No. 11 seed.
When the Tar Heels made it last season and when UCLA reached the Final Four in 2021 as a No. 11 seed, there was a name on the front of the jersey that made their runs somewhat less stunning. But FAU didn't start playing Division I basketball until the 1993-94 season, and fifth-year coach Dusty May hadn't posted a 20-win season until this year. Within the context of this season alone, FAU hardly qualifies as a cutesy underdog. But within the context of college basketball history and program legacies, this among the most unlikely Final Four runs of recent tournament history.
Nowell's performance goes to waste
After racking up 20 points in 19 assists in Thursday's Sweet 16 win over Michigan State, Nowell turned in another performance for the ages with 30 points and 12 assists. But K-State went cold during a critical stretch after Nowell put the Wildcats ahead 63-57 with a 3-pointer at the 8:39 mark. The Wildcats missed their next seven shots from the floor and went nearly seven minutes without a make from anywhere except the free-throw line as the Owls flipped the game in their favor.
Another 3-pointer from Nowell with 1:47 left finally snapped the drought and brought the Wildcats within 72-69, but the game's final sequence will haunt K-State. After Forrest's free throws with 6.9 seconds left, the Wildcats had plenty of time to get a shot off. But without a timeout, the play devolved into a convoluted mess as Nowell passed to Ismael Massoud instead of looking for his own shot. FAU swarmed Massoud, who lost the ball as time expired.