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Davis, Martin lead Owls to win in AAC debut

Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin were named preseason co-players of the year in the American Athletic Conference.

One game into the conference season, consider things status quo.

Davis and Martin each scored 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting as 17th-ranked Florida Atlantic weathered a vigorous challenge from East Carolina, finally breaking away in the last 6 1/2 minutes for a 79-64 victory at the Elly.

“It was our first game in the American, and we wanted to get it started off right,” Davis said.” We got it started off right.”

Actually, Davis and Martin totaled just one basket during that decisive final stretch—by Martin—but it was one more basket than the entire ECU team scored.

The Owls (11-3, 1-0) actually trailed for much of the first half—once by eight points—and still hadn’t shaken the Pirates with the game entering the homestretch. ECU forward Brandon Johnson’s layup helped cut a six-point FAU lead to two with 6:31 to play. That would be the Pirates’ last basket. They missed their final seven shots.

“We were throwing different stuff at 'em,” Martin said.

FAU outscored the Pirates 16-3 in that last 6:31, including what would have been a game-closing 14-0 in the last 4 1/2 minutes if not for an ECU free throw with 12 seconds left. Davis and Martin each contributed a pair of free throws to that run and Martin added a jumper down the stretch with the game all but decided. He was fouled on the play but missed his one-one free throw, leaving his final scoreline fittingly equal to that of Davis.

Martin (pictured via Bob Markey) splashed in four of his eight 3-point attempts in a major bounce-back from a 3-for-14 night in the upset loss Saturday at Florida Gulf Coast that included several painful misses at the rim. Beyond that, his shooting has been up-and-down all season as he's worked to replicate his 2022-23 consistency after a spending a good chunk of off-season idled by injury. The first pair of 3s Tuesday came 7 seconds apart in the first half and got his night off to a grand start.

“I just thought he just looked like he was back to having fun playing ball,” FAU coach Dusty May said. “He wasn’t thinking about what happened last game or what happened last possession. I thought he (immersed himself in) competing. I thought his defense was better. He brought a lot of positive contributions to the game, as did Johnell. And it was nice to have  B.J. (Bryan Greenlee) back being a pest on the ball and making big shots at the end.”

Indeed, Martin also assisted on a Greenlee 3-pointer that might have been the most consequential basket of the game. It reopened FAU’s lead to 69-63 with 3:49 left. Greenlee hit two other 3s in his 13-point, three-assist night. He made an impact early as well as late, scoring eight of FAU’s first 15 after entering the game.

“He was a spark off the bench,” said Davis, who had the other seven points in that game-opening stretch.

Martin's assist was one of his four and one of 21 overall for the Owls on 29 made baskets. All nine Owls who played had at least one assist. Jalen Gaffney matched Martin's individual total.

For much of the game, East Carolina provided the FAU coaches with unwelcome deja vu from the 2021-22 season, when game after game teams burned the Owls by hitting shots FAU was willing to concede. May has always contended that circumstance was the biggest reason the Owls’ didn’t finish with a substantially better record than 19-15.

At halftime Tuesday, ECU’s field-goal percentage was 54 percent thanks largely to a variety of mid-range shots—from a variety of Pirates—that looked safe to concede on the Owls’ scouting report. Maybe it’s because they're a ranked team, but the Owls seem to keep bringing out the best in most opponents.

“It’s almost like the year before last, where low-percentage shooters were banging in shots. Guys (lower) on the scouting reports were having career nights,” May said.

Finally, May had seen enough. It was time to break glass in case of fire. After what May termed “a spirited staff debate” during a second-half timeout, FAU decided to throw a defense at the Pirates that they hadn’t seen—because nobody had.

“We had a couple defensive wrinkles we had in that we practiced all fall, and you hope you never need them," May said. "We had to go a little bit deeper into the tool box and fortunately it worked out well. Again, credit to our guys to be able to do something outside our daily habits and be able to adjust on the fly.”

Next up for the Owls is a trip to Charlotte on Saturday. The 49ers, who like FAU made the jump this year to the AAC from Conference USA, lost their league debut Tuesday at SMU 66-54.

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