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As Nick Boyd entered Florida Atlantic’s locker room at Madison Square Garden late Thursday night, he screamed “This is my city!” over and over. Boyd, a redshirt freshman guard, isn’t technically from New York City. He grew up in Garnerville, N.Y., about 60 miles north of Manhattan, and played in high school at Don Bosco Institute in New Jersey.
Still, it was hard to argue with Boyd’s enthusiasm after No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic defeated No. 4 seed Tennessee, 62-55, in the NCAA tournament’s East Region semifinal. The Owls advanced to face No. 3 seed Kansas State on Saturday in the Elite Eight, continuing their unlikely run.
Before this season, Florida Atlantic had only appeared in one NCAA tournament, losing in the opening round in 2002. They also had won at least 20 games in a season just once, going 21-11 in 2011. But they are now 34-3, have more victories than any team in the nation and have memories of their fans celebrating wildly in the World’s Most Famous Arena.
“It was crazy having Madison Square Garden rocking,” Florida Atlantic guard Giancarlo Rosado said. “Everybody screaming FAU in Madison Square Garden? That was crazy.”
It was also unexpected. The Owls returned their top six scorers, had Boyd back after missing last season with a broken foot and added guard Jalen Gaffney, a transfer from UConn. Still, the Conference USA coaches selected Florida Atlantic to finish fifth in the preseason poll.
The Owls lost, 80-67, to Ole Miss in the second game of the season. Three days later, they upset Florida, 76-74, the start of a 20-game winning streak. After defeating Detroit Mercy, 76-55, on Nov. 19, Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May had Detroit Mercy coach Mike Davis address the Owls. May and Davis have been friends for years.
“(Davis) was like, ‘You guys are a top 25 team. You guys have a real shot to make the Final Four. There’s only going to be five teams in the whole country that are as close as you guys and I can see it in you,” Florida Atlantic assistant coach Kyle Church said. “We were kind of snickering, like, ‘Appreciate the kind words.’ But it was funny. He kind of saw it in us.”
In mid-January, Florida Atlantic achieved the first Associated Press top 25 ranking in school history. The Owls lost two conference games at UAB and at Middle Tennessee, but they won the league’s tournament, clinching an NCAA tournament berth.
In the first round, Florida Atlantic trailed No. 8 seed Memphis by one point late in the game before Boyd made a driving lefthanded layup with five seconds remaining for a 66-65 lead. On the other end, Memphis didn’t get a shot off, giving the Owls their first tournament victory. They then defeated No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson to advance to the Sweet 16.
After that game last Sunday night, Florida Atlantic stayed overnight in Columbus, Ohio and then flew to New York the next morning instead of returning to their campus in Boca Raton.
During the past few days, Florida Atlantic’s players toured the Manhattan sites and had a chance to practice at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. May and Church also told the team about what it was like playing in the arena. They were coaches at Florida in 2017 when Gators guard Chris Chiozza made a 3-pointer with four seconds remaining, giving Florida an 84-83 overtime victory over Wisconsin.
On Thursday, it wasn’t looking good for Florida Atlantic as it trailed Tennessee, 39-33, with 12:51 remaining. The Owls then went on a 20-4 run to take a 10-point lead. They never trailed again.
“It was kind of cool to come full circle and be back here,” Church said. “What a special win. These guys are unbelievable.”
Now, with one more victory on Saturday, Florida Atlantic would become the first No. 9 seed since Wichita State in 2013 to advance to the Final Four. It’s a scenario that few believed could happen before this season, but here the Owls are, celebrating with their fans in New York City, a far cry from what it was like on campus early in the season.
“This is just great for the FAU family,” Rosado said. “This is great for us. This is great for the school, the coaching staff, the athletic department. This is great for everybody, man. It’s an amazing time to be an FAU Owl.”