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Owls survive 'street fight' with Charleston

After all that, Florida Atlantic covered.

A lot of stuff went down Saturday night in the emotion-charged finale of the Field of 68 Tip-Off before FAU finally put away College of Charleston 90-74.

Maybe (LOL) a little too much stuff. We’ll get to that.

It took some doing for the Owls, who were 13 ½-point favorites, to fight off the talented and tenacious—and apparently also yappy—Cougars. They had to summon all their skill, experience and especially poise to come from eight points back and finally cleave open a rugged game of grown-man basketball that was part Bryant flashback, part WWE histrionics—again, we’ll get to that—and a whole lot of excellent play.

“A street fight,” FAU coach Dusty May preferred to call it.

The Owls (7-1) trailed for the middle part of the game. Then Johnell Davis and Vlad Goldin returned from foul trouble benchings to ease the load off Giancarlo Rosado, who had done all he could to keep FAU close in their absences.

Davis (pictured via Bob Markey II) scored 15 of his game-high 24 points in the last 15 minutes. Goldin scored 12 of his 17 in that same stretch. Each player also finished with a double-double, with Goldin snagging 12 rebounds and Davis 10.

Rosado finished with 15 points and eight rebounds—12 and six in the first half. “‘G’ was phenomenal in the first half. He was the reason we were in the game,” May said.

Still, FAU trailed 46-40 after 20 minutes. The game was almost even until the first of two key inflection points—a long stoppage with 8:48 during which the coaching staffs barked at each other, escalating to the point an irate, fist-shaking Cougars assistant coach took a step toward the FAU bench before calming down.

The incident began when FAU guard Brandon Weatherspoon appeared to say something to Charleston head coach Pat Kelsey as he passed by, which quick-twitched the hyper-energetic coach to complain to May. Then the assistants got involved, more theatrically from he Cougar side. Once everyone calmed down, the officials met and dispensed only bench warnings.

May and Kelsey shook hands amicably after the game. “Dusty and I have known each other for a long time,” Kelsey said. “A really good coach, really good program. I have a ton of respect for him. When competitors are out there competing, stuff happens from time to time.”

May got chuckles in the pressroom when answered a postgame question about the incident by citing the infamous NBA brawl involving his home-state team and the Detroit Pistons.

“Y’know, I’m a big Pacer fan,” he said. “I’ve seen ‘The Malice at the Palace.’ Outside of that, I’ve never seen coaches brawl at halfcourt.

“I wasn’t too concerned. They’re a fiery program. They’re scrappy, they’re tough. That’s why they are who they are. They’re good, man.”

In a postgame radio interview with Ken LaVicka, Rosado filled in some context of the Owls’ collective mindset leading up to that moment. He told LaVicka’s listeners that the Owls—who normally brush off opponents’ trash talk—got “fired up” by some of what they heard during pregame warmups.
FAU led 24-22 at the time. Nobody scored for a minute after play resumed, but powerful 6-foot-7 Charleston post player Ante Brzovich began asserting himself with Goldin in foul trouble. Rosado’s scoring offset Brzovich’s, but the Owls had neither a defensive solution nor offensive equalizers for Charleston's three-point shooters, who hit 8-of-16 in the first half. At the other end, the Cougars’ harassing defense made the Owls miss and look uncomfortable doing so—a vibe reminiscent of their home upset loss to Bryant two Saturdays ago.

“In the first half, they shot the cover off it,” May told LaVicka. “They were quicker to loose balls, they were a determined group. (But) we responded much, much better than we did against Bryant, where we kinda tried to do it by ourselves.”

The Owls did grow tight late in the half, May said. The difference here was they stayed calm, committed to a collective solution—even after falling  behind by eight early in the second half.

“It was very reassuring to see we learned the lessons from very recently,” May said.

Charleston would not be incorrect in citing a second-half inflection point in the other direction. Reyne Smith, who led the Cougars with 14 points, injured his ankle with 14:46 left when landing after dropping in an 8-foot floater for a 55-52 lead—ironically his only non-three-point basket of the night. He had to be helped off the court and did not return.

Davis, Goldin and Rosado helped FAU move out ahead for good at 60-57 and they continued from there. The lead was still just 71-65 when FAU put the game away with an 8-0 run completed with a Davis three that put FAU up 79-65 with 4:08 left and brought the Cougars' resistance to an end. Davis, whose plus-minus was 0 at the half, was plus-20 in the second half alone. May said Davis’ ability in transition keyed the Owls’ game-changing spurt.

“To be honest,” May said, “he started it, continued it and finished it.”

Next up for FAU is a return to Madison Square Garden, where they won their NCAA regional championship last March, and a date Tuesday with 24th-ranked Illinois. The Owls leave for New York on Monday. Illinois is already in the Tri-State area, winning its Big Ten opener Saturday impressively at Rutgers 76-58.

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