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Best Owl! FAU doubles down on defense and Rice pays the price

At the close of his postgame Zoom with South Florida media Wednesday night, FAU coach Dusty May asked about the weather back home.

“We haven’t seen the sun since we left, so we’re anxious to get back,” he said. On his radio spot a few minutes earlier, his description of the local conditions was even more grim: “Apocalyptic.”

Yikes. Sounds like perfect weather for staying indoors and practicing defense, which is precisely what the Owls did after giving up 103 points Sunday to UTSA. The resulting improvement in their workmanlike 69-56 victory over Rice suggests a sunnier forecast ahead, at least in basketball. Nick Boyd missed only one shot and scored 18 points on a night some Owls were more efficient offensively than others, but 22nd-ranked FAU (16-4) will draw the most positive takeaways from the other end.

The Owls have won five straight and share first place in the American Athletic Conference with Charlotte at 6-1, but on defense they’ve been up-and-down all season. A little self-reflection directed May toward a solution. At practice the Owls revisited and reinforced some basics that made defensive connectedness a team strength last season—but which May said may have been glossed over this preseason.

“Our staff, as a staff, probably made some mistakes skipping some steps early on, trying to build on where we thought we were,” May said. “… We’re happy with where we are now, though.”

Rice presented a worthy and complex test on the very issues addressed in practice. The Other Owls are 7-12 overall and 1-5 in the AAC, but May said he told his players before the game that with a few more plays here and there, and a few more breaks, Rice “probably should have been 4-1 instead of 1-4 based on how they played.”

Rice wears down opponents’ defenses with precision cuts and spot-ups orchestrated from the high post by center Max Fiedler, a 6-foot-11, 230-pound assist machine. FAU stayed focused, giving up a few inevitable layups but forcing Rice to work for basically every shot. Rice hit only 22 of 63 shots (35 percent). Big win, in May’s eyes.

“Against a team like Rice, it’s tough to take away layups and (also) threes, but for the most part I thought our guys did that,” he said. “They’re a challenge with the random movement. They read the defense really well, they cut hard, they’ve got a great plan, and I thought tonight our guys got back to our identity of communicating at a high level, playing with great physicality, and looking like a cohesive unit instead of five individuals trying to play defense.”

The Owls weren’t perfect, of course, but in a welcome change, Rice was one of few opponents this season that didn’t punish every mistake. None of the Other Owls had a career shooting game (in fact, season scoring leader Travis Evee was shut out). Rice missed a cluster of layups, clanked a few open 3s that could have stimulated momentum and even missed four of five free throws in the final minutes that could have cut deeper into a single-digit FAU lead. Rice also came away with points after only four of 13 offensive rebounds.

But while some of those missed open looks simply may have been the law of averages evening out, May said FAU’s defense deserves credit there, too.

“I think part of that is when you apply and force them to use as much energy (to get shots) as we did, it adds more pressure,” May said. “When the other team has the lead, and they haven’t exerted as much energy to score or get in position to score, it’s a different shot. … When it’s more physical and more taxing, it’s more difficult to make those open shots. They didn’t get many open ones, and when they did, it usually wasn’t the right guys (taking them).”

One exception: Rice certainly didn't mind Evee, a senior guard averaging 15.3 points and shooting 40 percent, taking 12 shots. But he missed all 12. Most of those, though, were taken under duress.

“I thought we did a nice job of showing our hands, getting our chest on him and making him score over bodies. And the times he did get deep, I thought our bigs helped or changed shots,” May said.

Boyd (shown via FAU Athletics) has the polar opposite for FAU. Though he took only six shots, he made five and was 3-for-4 on 3-pointers.

“I just took open shots and they went in,” Boyd said. “I feel everybody on the team does the same, and whoever it drops for, he usually leads the way.”

Shots weren’t dropping early for any Owl, of either variety. FAU didn’t score in the first two minutes, had only five points in the first five minutes and kept up that pace awhile longer, scoring 12 points in the first 12—five by Boyd. At that point, the Owls were 4-for-15 yet were down just 13-12 because Rice was just 5-for-17.

“I don’t think we were playing nearly as poorly offensively as the scoreboard said, but our guys stayed the course,” May said. “… If you can get stops, it takes pressure off having to score at the offensive end.”

FAU hit nine of 13 shots in the last 7:41 of the half, finally getting some fast-break opportunities in the late going to take a 33-26 lead into the break. Boyd had 11 at halftime.

Alijah Martin scored all 14 of his points in the second half. Johnell Davis, who also finished with 14, scored eight halftime. Consecutive transition dunks by Martin, one after making a steal and one after a defensive rebound off a Bryan Greenlee feed, seemed to put FAU comfortably ahead, 48-33 with 14:13 left. But the Other Owls, who stuffed FAU into pockets of inefficiency with physical defense of their own, fought back. And when Fiedler (18 rebounds, eight assists) hit a rare jumper with 5:32 left, Rice was within 57-52. It could’ve gotten tighter, too, but Rice missed a 3-pointer, two layups and a jumper before Boyd soloed on the first of two key plays and partnered with Davis and Martin on the other.

First, Boyd used a ball screen and drove the right side of the lane for a layup. Then, after Davis blocked and recovered a 3-point try at the other end, Boyd in transition whipped a pass to Martin for a 3 that restored the lead to 10.

“I thought Nick had great poise on the ball screen. He had a hesitation, attacked, got us an easy basket, and then in transition he was able to find Alijah in the right corner,” May said. “I thought both of those plays were created by Nick’s pace and and his poise and his confidence in his abilities.”

Boyd likes where FAU is right now, with a home game next up Sunday at 1:00 PM against North Texas, one of the other four AAC teams with one conference loss.

“Like Coach said, we’re finding our groove a little bit,” he said. “But we’re still light years away from where we’re gonna be.”

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