NEW YORK — — When the horn sounded on the greatest victory in the history of Florida Atlantic athletics, Nick Boyd and Bryan Greenlee hopped onto the press row table to celebrate.
Instead of going to the locker room, some of the Owls players made their way up into the stands to sing “New York, New York” with their fans.
The Boca Raton, Florida-based school that has only been competing in Division I for the last 30 years, and had just one previous appearance in the NCAA Tournament, is now a victory away from the Final Four.
The Owls used a second-half push led by Michael Forrest to beat fourth-seeded Tennessee 62-55 on Thursday night in the Sweet 16.
Ninth-seeded FAU (34-3) will play third-seeded Kansas State in the East Region final at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
“Yeah, our guys definitely feel like they belong on this stage,” fifth-year coach Dusty May said.
Even before the tournament started, this was the unquestionably the greatest season in FAU history. Now the Owls are one of the biggest stories in all of sports.
“We’re just a scrappy group,” Boyd said. “Unbreakable.”
Johnell Davis led the Conference USA champions with 15 points and Forrest finished with 11, including eight in a crucial second-half run where FAU took control.
The Volunteers (25-11), who were looking for the second Elite Eight appearance in program history, shot just 33% — including 6 of 23 from 3-point range. Josiah-Jordan James and Jonas Aidoo scored 10 points apiece.
“Certainly proud of the effort that these guys have given us all year, through tough times with injuries, but when it ends like this, it’s always disappointing because we want it all and came up short,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
Barnes has made 27 NCAA appearances with four schools, but he has reached the Elite Eight only twice and never gone to a Final Four.
The game was slogging along at Tennessee’s style and pace. The No. 1 defense in the country, according to KemPom metrics, out of the rugged Southeastern Conference was making FAU work hard for shots.
Then the Owls started hitting the 3-pointers they had been missing for much of the first 30 minutes.
“We got great shots even in the first half when they were in us a little bit,” Boyd said. “The second half, they dropped, we broke it open a little bit.”
Forrest made consecutive 3s to put FAU up 41-39 with 9:49 left, the Owls’ first leads since the opening minute.
Forrest capped a personal 8-0 run with driving layup that put the Owls up by four.
Meanwhile, Tennessee couldn’t buy a bucket. The Vols went six minutes during which they scored four points.
“Obviously we missed open shots, they missed open shots,” James said. “But we were disappointed in the way we played. We knew we had to play tougher, but we were up five points, so …”
Brandon Weatherspoon’s putback of a 3-point miss off the side of the backboard made it 51-41 with 6:47 left.
The Vols had one more push left. James swished a 3 with 3:33 left to cut the Owls’ lead to 55-50.
The Owls then turned up the defense, getting a key stop that led to a fast-break layup by Boyd that put FAU up 57-50 with 2:31 left.
The Owls salted it away with free throws from there, as the orange-clad Vols fans emptied out of MSG and the outnumbered FAU fans took over.
Owls fans serenaded May’s wife, Anna, with an “F-A-U!” chant before finally filing out of The Garden.
May compared Tennessee’s defensive physicality to rugby. He meant it as a compliment, and his Owls showed they could play tough, too.
“We feel like we’re physical as well,” Boyd said.
FAU: The Owls managed to outrebounded the bigger Vols 40-36, including 12 offensive rebounds that they turned into 14 second-chance points.
“We know we’re not the tallest team,” 7-foot-1 center Vlad Goldin said. “So we know we have to be quick to the ball. We have to be physical. We have to raise our physicality. But it’s not something to be scared of.”
Tennessee: The Vols were challenged offensively much of the season, and became even more limited when they lost point guard Zakai Zeigler.
Zeigler blew out his right knee against Arkansas on the last day of February, but there was no way the Long Island native was missing a trip back to New York. Zeigler was on the sideline, using a scooter to roll onto the court at times to join team huddles and provide encouragement.
Tennessee went 7-8 from Feb. 1 to the end of the season.
The Owls have never played Kansas State.
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