‘We’re here’: FAU first 9-seed in Final 4 since ’13

NEW YORK — All signs pointed to another chapter in Markquis Nowell lore, another all-time performance for Kansas State in one of the greatest individual runs in NCAA tournament history.

With 8 minutes, 37 seconds left in Saturday’s East Region final against Florida Atlantic, Nowell caught the ball on the right wing, used a ball screen and took a contested, step-back 3-pointer over the Owls’ Johnell Davis. It banked in, giving the Wildcats a six-point lead. Nowell ran down the court, giving his version of a Michael Jordan shrug.

It was happening again.

And then suddenly, it wasn’t.

Kansas State didn’t make another field goal for nearly seven minutes, with FAU going on a 15-1 run that propelled the 9-seed Owls to a 79-76 win over the 3-seed Wildcats.

FAU (35-3), which had been to one NCAA tournament before this season and didn’t have a single NCAA tournament victory in program history, became the first No. 9 seed to reach the Final Four since Wichita State in 2013 and the ninth No. 9 seed or lower to make it that 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 types of shots, guys like that cannot hit enough to beat us,” FAU guard Bryan Greenlee said. “They might hit enough to keep it close, but eventually, their gas is going to run out. And I feel like that’s what happened.”

Nowell, fresh off his record-setting 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 consistent production from the supporting cast. Fellow star Keyontae Johnson was limited to eight minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, and although he started the second half with a couple of baskets, he finished with nine points and fouled out with 2:44 left.

Despite Johnson’s struggles, Kansas State (26-10) hung in the game thanks to Nowell and then appeared to gain some separation in the second half. The Wildcats came out of halftime on a 6-0 run to take the lead and extended it to as many as seven points with 12:02 left. But every time it looked like Kansas State might blow the game open and keep FAU at arm’s length, the Owls responded.

Kansas State went up five, Greenlee hit a 3. Up seven, Vladislav Goldin and Davis scored. Up six again, another Greenlee 3. And then, after the Wildcats extended their lead to six one final time on Nowell’s banked 3, FAU started its run.

The Owls’ resilience never wavered.

“A lot of times people might try to hit home runs to close that lead, and we don’t really get rattled in situations where we’re down,” Greenlee said. “We’ve been in too many of them. So just taking it one possession at a time and focusing on getting stops.”

“We know eventually we’ll make some shots,” Goldin said. “We’re here. If we’re down seven points, we don’t care. We’re still playing.”

Second-half runs have been a theme for FAU all tournament. The Owls were 2.5 seconds from getting knocked out in the first round by Memphis, until Nick Boyd hit a game-winning layup for a one-point win. They were down in the second half to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson in the second round before going on a 12-2 run midway through the half. 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 had been on one in the first half,” coach Dusty May said. “So just staying the course, hang around, hang around, and then we always have a run. And because of our depth, our guys believe that we can play harder for longer periods than all of our opponents. And it may or may not be true, but we believe it.”

Regardless of schedule strength or conference ranking, 35 wins is 35 wins. And when you win that many games — and it’s now two more than anyone else in college basketball — at some point, winning becomes part of a team’s DNA. Comeback wins, close wins, winning by any means necessary.

On top of that, as May said, there’s no fear of losing.

“They weren’t afraid to lose today and go home. They’re not afraid of failure,” May said. “We lay it on the floor, and whatever happens after that is more than enough, because we’ve done that every single day. So there’s never a moment when we get tight because we’re not afraid of what happens if we don’t get it done.”

That composure was demonstrated in the final minutes, with FAU clinging to a one-point lead. Kansas State fouled Michael Forrest, who hadn’t attempted a free throw all game, with 17 seconds left. If there were any nerves on FAU’s side, none of the 19,680 people inside Madison Square Garden noticed.

There was May, standing on the traction mat on the sideline with his arms folded, expressionless. It could have been the first half of a November game; it could have been the final minute in late March with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

Forrest took after his coach at the foul line, calmly knocking down two free throws. He did the same exact thing 10 seconds later, again extending FAU’s lead to three with 6.9 seconds left.

“Just [wanted] to revert back to my training. Every day we all shoot free throws,” Forrest told ESPN. “Just for me to be at the free throw line, it was icing on the cake.”

FAU entered the tournament at 300-1 to win the championship at Caesars Sportsbook and would be the longest shot to win it all since seeding began in 1979, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

In an NCAA tournament filled with 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, a 9-seed FAU team making a run to the Final Four still registers. Only six Final Four teams in NCAA tournament history have been seeded lower than the Owls. FAU’s basketball program didn’t move to Division I until 1993 and had one regular-season title in program history before this season.

At the same time, this is a team that won 20 games in a row earlier this season and is now on an 11-game winning streak. The Owls were ranked in the top 25 for most of the second half of the season and entered Saturday’s game ranked higher than Kansas State in most predictive metrics.

May hasn’t been able to put it in perspective yet, recalling a game earlier in the NCAA tournament when a player made a mistake and he turned to an assistant coach and mentioned how it needed to be fixed during the offseason.

“That’s kind of how I’m wired,” he said.

Entering the East Region as the lowest-seeded team at Madison Square Garden, FAU was the one to impose its style on the opposition. It out-toughed and outran the most physical team left in the tournament in Tennessee. It made more big shots than the most clutch player in the tournament so far against Kansas State.

And FAU wants its respect.

“They’re going to label us whatever, but we’re some pit bulls and Rottweilers,” Alijah Martin said. “We go out there and show it every night.”

Despite Nowell’s tournament-long heroics, on the final possession, with Kansas State down three with 6.9 seconds left, he didn’t even get a chance to tie the score. Nowell dribbled across half court and passed to Ismael Massoud, who was quickly trapped and lost the ball to Davis.

The clock struck zero, and FAU had its nation-leading 35th win of the season — for now, the most important one.

Boyd ran over to the FAU crowd, yelling, “I tried to tell you! We’re pit bulls!”

Cinderella no more.

Said Forrest: “We’re supposed to be here.”

“It’s unreal. I want to go to tears, but I can’t right now,” Davis told ESPN. “I’m not really celebrating right now. We’ve got Saturday and Monday.”

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