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Charlotte the latest to make FAU pay for bad start

FAU coach Dusty May was talking Saturday postgame about the 2023-24 Owls' need to recapture their 2022-23 edge.

“We’ve got to find a way,” he said, “to go back to being the hunter instead of the hunted.”

The reality after their last-second 70-68 upset loss at Charlotte is that they probably now have no choice. It doesn’t matter that they actually took a brief late lead after overcoming a 17-point, second-half deficit. In the cold, hard NCAA Tournament resume business, metrics are undefeated against moral victories. And the No. 17 Owls, probably in the final days as a nationally ranked team for awhile, fell to 11-4 overall, with the loss Saturday their third against a sub .500 team.

That outcome reduces the margin for error in earning an at-large NCAA bid to all but beating everyone else in the American Athletic Conference regular season, including revenge-minded Memphis twice. Otherwise, the only path back to the NCAA Tournament for a second-chance at another magical March run would be to win the conference tournament, which would make FAU the AAC’s automatic qualifier.

“We’re very open, honest and transparent with where we think we are, what we need to do from a big picture standpoint,” May said. “These guys knew last February we couldn’t drop any more games to have a chance to get an at-large bid. We’re not hiding anything from them. It’s part of it. These guys have shown they can play with pressure on them, and obviously our goal is to win a conference championship first and foremost.”

Nick Boyd’s return to form Saturday (19 points) notwithstanding, the prospects of regrouping for the AAC Tournament might be the more promising option. It’s unclear if a quick fix is possible for the Owls (11-4), who now have lost as many games in two months as they did all last season. Boyd (shown via FAU Athletics) might at least have provided an important missing ingredient. He scored 15 points in the second half, which began with FAU down 15. The Owls, who actually trailed by 19 in the first half, fell back twice more by 17—the last time at 45-28—before beginning their comeback. Boyd, who missed seven games with a leg injury, had not been his impactful self since his return.

Boyd’s driving layup and-one tied the game 53-53 with 6:30 left. His free throws tied the game again at 57-57 and 61-61. In between, Alijah Martin had given the Owls a short-lived 59-57 lead. But as has been the case this season, another low-percentage shooter hurt the Owls with high-leverage points.

After Johnell Davis (20 points) tied the game with free throws at 63, Patterson—a 29 percent 3-point shooter this season—hit an open 3 on a ball-screen defensive mistake. Davis and Patterson traded baskets again before Davis nailed a 3 to provide the last tie with 13 seconds left. On Charlotte’s final possession, Bryan Greenlee got caught on a high ball screen, scrambled back into the play but was called for a foul as Patterson shot from inside the lane. His free throws provided the deciding points.

“We felt like it was going to come to him and we wanted to force a tough shot,” May said. “Obviously B.J. didn’t intend to foul him. We thought we got him to to take the shot we wanted, but it didn’t work out for us.”

Even then the Owls almost pulled off a miracle. Inbounding with 1.7 seconds left, ex-high school quarterback Martin threw a perfect bomb that Goldin snatched and redirected to Boyd in the deep corner. Boyd’s shot rimmed out.

If Boyd’s second-half scoring was part of the near-solution Saturday, part of FAU’s problem was that Boyd also scored its first two points—and he didn’t enter the game until after the first timeout. The 49ers had taken a 9-0 lead before Boyd’s layup almost 6 minutes in.

Charlotte (7-7) controlled the game from the beginning, and by copying all or parts of the same formula that’s worked regularly against the Owls. How To Frustrate FAU, CliffsNotes version: 1. Apply heavy physicality on defense to keep the Owls from starting fast. 2. Spread the Owls out at the other end to limit team help, open easy rolls to the basket and force one-on-one clear-outs.

The 49ers didn’t do “2” until gradually seeing a few shots drop and getting comfortable on offense. They did “1” from the opening tip. The Owls worked the ball inside early but never got comfortable looks. Vlad Goldin missed, then Davis, then Goldin again, then Martin had his shot blocked, then Giancarlo Rosado missed off-balanced in traffic. The Owls eventually worked their way to 43 percent shooting overall but missed 14 of 19 3-pointers.

“They pressed, and they tried to disrupt our rhythm and flow,” May said. “That’s something we’ve seen the last several games. … “Obviously, they went back and looked at the games we’ve lost, where teams played zone and did different things to try to get us off balance. … Absolutely, I thought it was a very physical game early on. They were aggressive, and hat’s off to them. They played a very determined basketball game.”

They also were out rebounded 30-25 and managed only five assists to 12 for the 49ers, who found cutter after cutter in the first half for layups.

“It’s no secret, when you look at the games we’ve lost, we haven’t shot well from the perimeter,” May said. “We just aren’t defending and rebounding as well as we need to when the shots aren’t dropping.”

Even if it wasn’t enough, the Owls responded to halftime adjustments on offense and defense and played much better. The adjusting may not be done, though, as the Owls prepare for another challenging AAC road game Thursday at Tulane.

“We’ll definitely look at some different things,”  May said.

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