NEW YORK — In a season of firsts for Florida Atlantic men’s basketball — first time ranked in the AP Top 25, first Conference USA championship, first NCAA Tournament victories — the Owls added one more on Thursday.
The Boca Raton, Fla., school of more than 30,000 students is going to its first Elite Eight.
Michael Forrest powered an 18-2 stretch in the middle of the second half and ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic took down fourth-seeded Tennessee 62-55 in the East Region semifinals.
The underdog Owls (34-3), in just their second NCAA Tournament in program history, will face third-seeded Kansas State on Saturday at Madison Square Garden for the right to go to the Final Four.
“It’s awesome for our university, our athletic department and our community. We are extremely proud to represent them,” Owls coach Dusty May said. “These guys have put a lot of work, elbow grease into building the program. For it to be at this point, it’s very rewarding, but we’ll focus on all that later after the season.”
Johnell Davis led all scorers with 15 points for Florida Atlantic, making 9 of 10 at the foul line and adding six rebounds. Nick Boyd had 12 points and eight rebounds, and Forrest put up eight of his 11 during the run that turned the tide in the Owls’ favor.
Davis had two fouls in the first half before getting into a flow in the second.
“We were kind of hanging around, we were out of rhythm, so we just thought if we can keep it at this margin and get to half, then he can play with aggression,” May said.
Jonas Aidoo produced 10 points and seven rebounds for Tennessee (25-11). Josiah-Jordan James had 10 points and six rebounds, and Uros Plavsic scored all eight of his points in the first half.
Tennessee led by five at halftime and Santiago Vescovi buried two 3-pointers early in the second half, but the Volunteers couldn’t extend their edge past seven points.
Davis began the decisive run with a layup. Forrest made a 3-pointer off some quick ball movement, trimming the deficit to one. After Tennessee fouled, Forrest canned another triple to make it 41-39 — the Owls’ first lead since 3-2.
Forrest made a shot high off the glass while hitting the deck. Aidoo committed three fouls (one offensive) during the stretch, and Florida Atlantic’s Alijah Martin sank a wide-open 3-pointer to cause Tennessee coach Rick Barnes to call timeout. The Owls extended their lead to 51-41 by the end of the run.
Consecutive buckets brought Tennessee within six, and James drilled a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 55-50 with 3:37 left.
With the margin seven points, Boyd missed a 3-point attempt, Davis came up with a crucial offensive rebound and was sent to the foul line with 49 seconds left. Davis effectively iced the game by making both free throws to put the Owls up 61-52.
The Volunteers established an early 17-8 lead. The Owls stayed in the game with a balanced scoring effort, and Boyd trimmed it to 27-22 on a 3-pointer with 2:42 to play in the half. The teams combined to miss their final nine shots of the half from there, with Plavsic’s putback failing to beat the buzzer.
“The locker room (at halftime), it was kind of laid-back,” Boyd said. “We felt like we played terrible in the first half and we were still down four points, five points. We referred back to the Memphis game (in the first round) when we were down four at halftime. … Today the shots fell.”
After he scored a career-high-tying 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting in the second round against Duke, Tennessee’s Olivier Nkamhoua was held to six points on 2-of-9 shooting on Thursday. The Volunteers shot just 33.3 percent as a team, compared to the Owls’ 42 percent.
–Adam Zielonka, Field Level Media
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