Florida Atlantic makes history by beating Kansas State to earn its first Final Four trip
NEW YORK — The dream will continue for No. 9 Florida Atlantic, which beat No. 3 Kansas State 79-76 in the finals of the East Regional to complete one of the most unexpected Final Four runs in NCAA men’s tournament history.
Alijah Martin scored a team-high 17 points and center Vlad Goldin had 14 points and 13 rebounds for FAU, which becomes the first Conference USA team to reach the national semifinals since Memphis in 2008.
FAU is also the ninth team since 1979 to reach the Final Four as a No. 9 seed or higher. Five of the previous eight have occurred since 2013. The Owls now owns a Division I-leading 35 wins after having won more than 19 games just once in program history entering this season.
"Extremely rewarding to see a group give as much as these guys have all season, shots, playing time, minutes, everything you could imagine, grit, everything 100 percent every day in practice and then be rewarded because there's never a guaranteed," Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May said. "You're always relying on faith that you believe it's going to happen, but you never really know. In this era where everyone wants the whole pie, these guys continued sharing the pie every single day, and this was the result."
The Owls led 42-38 at halftime as Kansas State struggled without All-America forward Keyontae Johnson, who picked up his second foul eight minutes into the game and did not play the rest of the first half.
Johnson would return coming out of halftime and score seven quick points before picking up his fourth foul with 14:10 left in the second half. The former Florida transfer would foul out with 2:44 remaining after scoring nine points in 18 minutes of play.
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Even with Johnson in foul trouble, the Wildcats were able to take a 57-50 lead midway through the second half. Like they did in its Sweet 16 defeat of Tennessee, Florida Atlantic took control in the final 10 minutes, eventually taking a 64-63 lead on a dunk by Goldin with six minutes left.
The Owls stretched their advantage to eight with less than three minutes left before Kansas State staged a furious rally. The Wildcats cut their deficit to one before FAU senior Michael Forrest hit a pair of free throws with six seconds left. Kansas State would fail to get off a shot on the game's final possession.
"It's pretty surreal," guard Bryan Greenlee said. "It's a lot of excitement. Just happiness for the unit that we have that everyone gets to experience this together, and also a little bit of just hunger to go finish it off."
This is only the second NCAA tournament bid in program history. FAU has posted 10 winning seasons since joining Division I in 1993, half coming under coach Dusty May
FAU was able to advance despite the best efforts of Kansas State point guard Markquis Nowell, who had 30 points and 12 assists playing in his hometown. Nowell averaged 23.5 points and 13.5 assists during the Wildcats' four tournament games.
"I'm happy and grateful that I got the opportunity to play in Madison Square," Nowell said. "I always dreamed of something like this, just playing here, being here, playing my heart out. I feel like I gave my heart and soul to this game for these past couple games because I wanted to see these guys win and smile and know what the standard is for winning.".
It was a disappointing end for Kansas State, which reached its third Elite Eight since 2010 but again fell short of reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1964.
Still, it was an amazing season for first-year coach Jerome Tang and the Wildcats, who were picked last in the Big 12 preseason poll and won 26 games.
"This hurts right now, but I wouldn't trade these guys for 10 players, 10 others or 20 others." Tang said. "So very thankful for the fun and the ride that we've had this year."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida Atlantic tops Kansas State to reach first Final Four