Michael Forrest’s Clutch Free Throws Propel Florida Atlantic To First Men’s Basketball Final Four
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Soon after Dusty May accepted the job as the Florida Atlantic men’s basketball coach in March 2018, he reached out to Michael Forrest, a senior at nearby Blanche Ely High School. Forrest was the reigning Broward County player of the year, having averaged 26 points per game and leading his school to a state title.

Still, FAU’s previous coaching staff hadn’t shown interest in Forrest and didn’t offer him a scholarship. Besides, Forrest didn’t even want to go to FAU. The school’s Boca Raton campus was too close to his home in Lauderhill, only about a 20-minute drive, and the basketball team had a spotty history. But after connecting with May, Forrest signed with the Owls, confident that good things lay ahead.

Five years later, Forrest was at Madison Square Garden, standing on the foul line with 17.9 seconds remaining in the NCAA tournament’s East Region final on Saturday night. Florida Atlantic led Kansas State by one point, and the sold-out arena was the loudest crowd Forrest had ever experienced. It was a far cry from the 1,098 fans who attended Forrest’s college debut in November 2018.

Forrest remained calm, though, and made both free throws. After Kansas State scored on the other end, the Wildcats fouled Forrest again. This time, it was the same result, as Forrest made both free throws for a 79-76 lead with 6.9 seconds remaining. The Wildcats had one last chance to tie the game and send it to overtime, but they didn’t get a shot off, setting off an FAU celebration that few had predicted.

In the FAU locker room afterward, Owls guard Jalen Gaffney scrolled through his cell phone and saw a social media post.

“0.7% of brackets had us in the Final Four,” said Gaffney, referring to people who filled out brackets on ESPN’s website. “Good job, guys.”

The Owls’ run to the Final Four is among the most unlikely in recent history. Entering this season, they had made only one NCAA tournament appearance, losing in the first round in 2002. But after losing their second game of the season, FAU won 20 consecutive games and reached No. 24 in the Associated Press poll in mid-January, the first time the school had ever achieved a national ranking.

FAU lost two games to Conference USA opponents, but it won the league’s regular season and tournament title, clinching an NCAA tournament berth. The Owls finished 25th in the final regular season AP poll, although they only received the No. 9 seed in the East Region.

“Honestly, when the seeding came out, we were kind of bummed out,” said Gaffney, who transferred to FAU from UConn before the season. “We thought we were too low. But we knew coming into the tournament that we’d be a tough matchup for a lot of teams.

The Owls nearly lost their opening round game, trailing No. 8 Memphis by one point before guard Nick Boyd made a layup with five seconds remaining for a 66-65 lead. Memphis didn’t get a shot off on the other end, giving FAU its first NCAA tournament victory. The Owls followed up with victories over No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson in the second round and No. 4 Tennessee in Thursday night’s Sweet 16, overcoming a six-point deficit midway through the second half before winning 62-55.

It was similar on Saturday as FAU trailed Kansas State, 63-57, with 8:39 remaining after Wildcats guard Markquis Nowell made a deep 3-pointer. Nowell, the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player, finished with 30 points and 12 assists. But over the next six minutes, FAU went on an 18-4 run to take a 72-64 lead. Kansas State got to within one point at 77-76 on Nae’Qwan Tomlin’s layup with 8.6 seconds remaining, but Forrest made two free throws on the other end for the game’s final points.

“I really tried to just tune the crowd out,” Forrest said. “I knew if I got into it, I would’ve probably gotten tight.”

Forrest had started all 34 games last season, but before this season, May spoke with him and told him he would be coming off the bench. That news would’ve caused many other players to transfer, but that thought never crossed Forrest’s mind.

“(May) asked me if I would stay, would I be committed to taking a lesser role?,” said Forrest, who had six points and played 16 minutes and 42 seconds on Saturday. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m committed to winning. As long as we had a group of guys that’ll stay together and love each other, that’s all that matters.”

After Saturday’s victory, in which FAU had a 44-22 rebounding advantage, Forrest and the rest of his teammates stood on a stage posing for photos and clutching the East Region trophy. They chanted “Beach Boys!” over and over, a nod to a comment that Western Kentucky interim head coach Phil Cunningham made after a game in mid-January. Cunningham noted that FAU played with a “beach mentality and played very chill and very loose,” according to FAU forward Giancarlo Rosado.

“It was really a backhanded slap from (Cunningham),” Rosado said. “But we embraced that and we took that as fuel and we gave ourselves the nickname Beach Boys.”

How often do they chant “Beach Boys”?

“All the time,” Rosado said. “We walk around in the facility and say, ‘What up Beach Boy?’ all the time.”

On the court afterward, Brad Levine, chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, walked around and celebrated with the team and their fans. He rejoiced in knowing that the basketball team’s run would raise the University’s profile across the U.S.

“This is one of the biggest stages in the world,” said Levine, a successful businessman and real estate developer who grew up in Boca Raton but graduated from the University of Florida. “Owl Nation is incredible. You look at the success they’re doing, it is phenomenal. I couldn’t be prouder of the team.”

Nearby, FAU football coach Tom Herman soaked in the scene, too.

“This is unbelievable,” said Herman, who was hired in December. “Dusty has done such an unbelievable job. I text him after most wins, and it’s always the same thing. It’s so impressive how hard his guys play. You can tell their playing for a greater purpose. They’re playing for each other.”

Jack May, Dusty’s son and a walk-on on the Florida basketball team, was in a jubilant mood, as well. May said he had lived in seven states growing up as his father climbed the coaching ladder, finally getting his first head job at FAU when he was 41 years old after serving as an undergraduate manager at Indiana for 18 years and an assistant for 18 years.

“I don’t think I could’ve ever imagined the Final Four,” Jack May said. “It’s insane. I’m so proud of him.”

Now, May and the rest of the Owls will be playing next Saturday in Houston in the Final Four against the winner of Sunday’s game between Creighton and San Diego State. They are the first Conference USA team since 2008 and first No. 9 seed since 2013 to make the Final Four.

Before the game, the Owls’ coaching staff wrote “Perfect Matchup” on a white dry erase board in the locker room. Below those words were “We Are Built For This Moment.” FAU then went out and lived up to that mantra, no matter how unlikely it seemed.

“We had a lot of fuel today because some college basketball analysts were saying, ‘Oh, little Owls. Their season’s done today,’” Rosado said. “Ain’t nobody’s season’s done today. We’re gonna keep going. We’re gonna take it to Houston. Don’t jump on the coattail now.”

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