Call them undersized, undermanned or even underdogs. All No. 9 seed FAU has done -- and continues to do -- this season is win. The Owls proved that once again Thursday night as they ousted No. 4 seed Tennessee from the 2023 NCAA Tournament with a 62-55 victory in the Sweet 16.
Advancing to the Elite Eight out of the East Region, FAU continues to take one unprecedented step after another. The Owls had never won a national postseason game -- not in the NCAA Tournament, NIT, CBI or CIT -- before this edition of March Madness, its second NCAA Tournament appearance in program history (2002).
Now, with three thrilling victories in the sport's most prestigious event, they sit one win away from an unlikely but more-than-possible Final Four berth. No. 3 seed Kansas State, fresh off a rousing 98-93 overtime win over Michigan State, awaits Saturday night in Madison Square Garden.
Trailing by five at halftime, FAU had shot just 3 of 14 from 3-point land, but it held a five-rebound advantage over a significantly larger UT squad. Being within striking distance despite playing so poorly through the opening 20 minutes was all the motivation the Owls needed to come out firing on all cylinders in the second half.
FAU exploded on a 18-2 run with eight straight points from Michael Forrest, turning a six-point deficit into a game-high 10-point lead over a 6-minute span. Tennessee went 1 of 10 from the field during that stretch, and it never recovered. The Volunteers cut their deficit in half on a 3-pointer by Josiah-Jordan James with 3:37 remaining, but the Owls immediately answered with four straight points and hit their free throws over the game's final minutes to claim victory.
"Despite the score at the half, we felt like we were playing our type of game," FAU coach Dusty May said after the game. "We got back to moving the ball. We were playing with great physicality. We did an unbelievable job on the glass in the first half despite our size, and once again, it's a testament to how hard these guys play and their drive and determination."
Though its fair to argue FAU was significantly underseeded given it entered the NCAA Tournament at 31-3 (18-2 Conference USA) while playing some of the best and most consistent basketball in the country, Thursday nevertheless marked the continuation of a Cinderella story for May's bunch.
These Owls are a vision realized for May, who joined FAU out of Florida ahead of the 2018-19 season. The progress steadily made in Boca Raton, Florida, has been impressive with FAU finishing better than it did the previous season in each of his four consecutive campaigns. This season continues to be the most successful in program history
"Everyone in our program certainly feel like we belong here, and a lot goes into that," May said.
May's star pupil, guard Johnell Davis, once again led FAU with 15 points; though he struggled offensively on the evening, Davis hit 9 of 10 free throws with six key boards. The Owls ultimately outrebounded the Vols 40-36 and won the inside scoring battle 26-22.
Forrest's 11 points, on the back of a trio of timely treys, were notably clutch down the stretch. Particularly given he has struggled of late.
"In the second half, whatever clicked it looked like he wasn't thinking anymore and he was just hooping," May said. "When he does that, he's a special player."
Tennessee (25-11) fell short of its goal to make the Elite Eight for the second time in program history. The Vols hit just 6 of 23 triples and struggled only shooting 33% from the field.
Questions will continue to be asked about coach Rick Barnes' ability to win in the postseason. Though Tennessee has returned to relevance as a perennial NCAA Tournament team, Barnes has not taken the Vols past the Sweet 16 since joining the program ahead of the 2015-16 season. In fact, has not led any team to the Elite Eight since 2007-08 Texas.
Under Barnes, the Vols have been eliminated by lower seeds in all five of their NCAA Tournament appearances with four of those defeats coming to programs listed as No. 9 seeds or lower.