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FAU falls in hard-fought rematch at Memphis

Whether his motive was revenge or desperation, Nae’Qwan Tomlin would not be denied against Florida Atlantic on Sunday, and his Memphis teammates eventually followed his lead.

Tomlin, a 6-foot-10 forward whose season at Kansas State was ended by the Owls in the Elite Eight round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament, set the tone throughout the 78-74 Memphis victory at FedExForum. His winning effort inspired the Tigers from the outset, even when they couldn’t hit the floor with a water bottle.

Coach Penny Hardaway, who famously flung his container in disgust after the NCAA game last March at Columbus, has seen a marked rise in intensity from his Tigers in two games since their 106-79 loss at SMU.

“This is terrible,” he said last Sunday after that game, at the time their second straight loss. “I don’t know what’s going on, but this is not competing. … I don’t just don’t understand why (we’re) not competing. Every game we’re playing is for our life, to make it to the NCAA Tournament.” Since then, they’ve run off Charlotte 76-52 and now completed their weeklong sweep of the second-place teams in the American Athletic Conference by taking down the Owls.

FAU and Charlotte now trail first-place USF by three games with three to play. Charlotte still has a mathematical chance to tie the Bulls, but the loss Sunday eliminated the Owls (21-7, 11-4 AAC), their 90-86 head-to-head loss the tie-breaker. At 20-8 overall, it’s unlikely the Tigers can earn an NCAA bid without winning the conference tournament in two weeks. Unless the Owls right themselves in their final three games, including a rematch with Memphis at The Elly in two weeks, they may be in the same predicament.

“Are we disappointed these last games (coming up) don’t mean more for the regular season championship? Absolutely. But we have a lot of goals, a lot of basketball in front of us,” FAU coach Dusty May said.

Vlad Goldin led the Owls with 22 points on 9-for-9 shooting. Johnell Davis added 20, but on 6-for-15 shooting. Alijah Martin (pictured via FAU Athletic along with Nick Boyd) added 13 and a team-high nine rebounds. Bryan Greenlee hit three of the Owls’ seven 3-pointers to account for his nine points. Brandon Weatherspoon hit two of the others among his eight points and also led FAU with six assists. A third made 3 by Weatherspoon, taken with 22 seconds left, would have tied the game 75-75 to complete what would have been a miraculous 10-point comeback in the last 3 1/2 minutes.

Giancarlo Rosado, who etched his name forever in FAU lore with his 15 points off the bench in the 66-65 NCAA victory, was scoreless in just nine minutes. Boyd, who scored the winning layup with 2.5 seconds left, was kept to two points Sunday in his off-the-bench role.

May said he was not disappointed in the Owls’ overall effort. But the Tigers’ ability to couple their quickness, athleticism and superior length with intensity enabled them to simply outcompete FAU in key stretches. FAU was able to match Memphis in rebounding at 35-35 but the Tigers forced 13 turnovers and whether in full-court or half-court defense, disrupted the Owls all day with 11 steals and seemingly one deflection after another.

Memphis leads the league in steals at 8.7, so that statistic probably isn’t surprising. What might be is that Tomlin was one of their co-leaders with three. Or maybe not, considering everything else he did in addition to contributing 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting and adding eight rebounds.

Tomlin wasn’t with the Memphis program when the Tigers lost to FAU or even when they circled the date for this game upon the release of the AAC schedule last year. He didn’t even join the team until January after transferring from K-State. But he was a starter at Madison Square Garden last March in a game the Owls won 79-76 despite his 14 points and six rebounds.

He outperformed his season scoring average (11.3) despite taking on more responsibility as he stepped in for senior Malcolm Dandridge, who was serving the first game of an indefinite suspension while being investigated by the school for alleged academic fraud. May praised his effort.

“When you watch film, it’s difficult to see a guy’s spirit,” May said  "(In this game) I can count 10 to 20 invisible plays where we had an advantage but because of his length—and they’re not just deflections, if they’re deflections that take away a layup it’s almost like two deflections. His activity, his ability to roam around. Vlad was fighting him one-on-one in the post, and every time I tried to get us organized, it was Tomlin coming in from behind, for double teams, for random plays, he was almost playing like a safety.”

Tomlin kept Memphis within 31-30 after a first half FAU once led 24-16. The Tigers missed several open jump shots in the first half.  David Jones, the Tigers’ All-America candidate, was just 2-for-7 in the first half for five points. In the second half, he resembled the player with the unique distinction of being the only one in major-college basketball averaging 21 points, seven rebounds and two steals. He finished the game with 25 points, 11 rebounds and three steals, hurting the Owls in transition and on offensive rebounds.

“He has such an ability to find creases, and he does a great job of initiating contact and playing off that contact,” May said. “He got a lot of rebounds that a lot of college basketball players aren’t able to get and convert in crowds. He was able to do that at a high level tonight. Once we had our defense set, I thought we did a solid job on him. But when he’s able to get in transition in the open court, he’s a freight train.”

Jones was too much as the second half wore on and the Tigers went on an 11-1 run for a 73-63 lead with 7:22 left. The lead seemed safe until Davis and Weatherspoon led a late scramble that almost caught the Tigers.

In the end, though, FAU fell victim to its turnovers, eight of which—including a few self-inflicted—came in the first half when the Owls were unable to capitalize on the Tigers’ sub-40 percent shooting. Memphis might be a bit easier to score against in the open court than when playing a set defense. But even that’s easier said than done.

“To beat them, you have to play on the fly and make decisions almost at double speed because they’re so fast and athletic,” May said.

“We knew coming into the game they’re one of the best teams in the country in forcing turnovers and offensive rebounding. There were a few unforced, poor-decision turnovers, but there were some caused because they’re tall, long, athletic—I could go on.”

The Owls have almost a week to, in May’s words “clean things up.” Their next game—the next-to-last home game of the season—is noon Saturday with Tulane.

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