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Nellylicious! Last-second 3 by Davis gets FAU past relentless UNT

Don’t try to tell anyone at Florida Atlantic that Super Sunday is two weeks from now.

It’s hard to imagine anything being more super than a last-second 66-63 win over a relentless and withering North Texas team with a style that ensures little more than the absolute minimum going right.

That included the game-winning final play, which resulted in Johnell Davis sinking a well-guarded 3-point basket with less than a second left. Davis sent The Elly into bonkers mode when he banged in the last three of his game-high 28 points from the left wing. But even that outcome followed a broken play that left him trying simply to draw a foul and get to the line, as he did last Sunday when his ensuing free throws saved the Owls at UTSA by forcing overtime.  

This time he failed to draw the foul but—LOL—bailed himself out by hitting the shot.

“It never goes in. It happened to go in this time,” said Davis (pictured via Richard Pereira).

That’s all that separated two teams with unmistakeable winning cultures clawing for the top of the American Athletic Conference standings. The 22nd-ranked Owls (17-4) overall, remained tied with Charlotte atop the AAC at 7-1 with their sixth straight victory. The Mean Green (12-7) are 5-2 in the AAC, having lost only to each of the co-leaders.

It was a game full of stops and starts, and a lot of almost-but-not-quite moments for an FAU team hungry, but largely unable, to dictate style. Which made winning it all the more satisfying for FAU coach Dusty May.

“It’s tough. It’s rugged. It’s ugly. We prefer the Beach Boys (style), but we know we have to be equipped to win in any style of play and physicality,” May said.

Stylistically, the teams couldn’t be more different. FAU favors free-flowing viewer-friendly offense and a breezy tempo that last season contributed to their fun national nickname, the Beach Boys. If UNT had a nickname, it might be the Muck Men. The Mean Green play handsy, chest-to-chest defense—they're fourth nationally in scoring defense after finishing the last two seasons No. 1—and a deliberate offense that leads the nation in fewest possessions per game. Even with significant personnel changes this year—Ross Hodge was elevated to head coach after Grant McCasland left for Texas Tech, star guard Tylor Perry hit the transfer portal, and seven new players overall joined the program—the culture has not changed.

“We couldn’t have more respect for the players, the coaches, their program as a whole,” May said. “It’s a well-run machine and they have people that are all about winning—and we try to pride ourselves on similar things. We’re obviously different with some stylistic things, but to the core we feel like we’re very similar. We enjoy butting heads against them because it’s difficult.”

Indeed it is. And as was the case when FAU swept UNT last year 50-46 in Denton and 66-62 at The Elly, the Mean Green largely dictated the pace and the Owls were at their best in the times they were able to speed it up. As a result, FAU made only 42.1 percent of its shots (24-57) to UNT’s 45.6 percent (26-57). FAU also gave up 14 points off 13 turnovers.

“Either side of the ball, there were plays where we found a way to win, but (defensively) we have to clean some things up and get a lot better,” May said. “North Texas got great looks, and to be honest against their defense we were happy with a lot of our looks. They just challenge everything. And that’s a compliment, because if you can challenge every movement, every pass, every shot—we’re not used to it because in the games very few teams have the multiple effort after multiple effort, and you think you’re open and an elite athlete flies out of nowhere to get a late contest, it’s different.”

One area of clear success for FAU was rebounding. The Mean Green are among the national leaders in offensive rebounding, but FAU limited the Mean Green to eight offensive rebounds and just six second-chance points. At the other end, the shorter Owls got 12 second-chance points by virtue of clearing a remarkable 17 offensive rebounds to UNT’s 20 defensive rebounds. Davis and Vlad Goldin each had four offensive rebounds.

Davis’ basket, officially with .5 seconds left, finished off a tumultuous 55 seconds of basketball that began after Bryan Greenlee fed Nick Boyd for a reverse layup that tied the game for the 11th time. The Mean Green used up almost the whole shot clock before C.J. Noland missed a 3 with 22 seconds left and, after an offensive rebound, John Buggs III missed another with 16 seconds left. The Mean Green regressed to season form in 3-point shooting at just the right time. UNT entered the game shooting just 26.3 percent from the arc in the second half, but were 5-of-10 in the second half Sunday prior to those misses. Credit Boyd with excellent close-outs on both, racing to the left corner to harass the open Noland and then darting out front to do the same against Buggs, who’d hit four 3s.

Davis cleared the Buggs miss for FAU, brought the ball upcourt and circled to his left around a screen set by Goldin at the foul-line extended near the arc. Boland was not screened off, though, and stuck with Davis. He pump faked once, but Boland stayed in good defensive position, so he rose up, a bit off-balance, and shot.

“I tried to step back and get a foul,” Davis said.  The bad news, Boland again wasn’t fooled.

The good news: splash.

May said the play, newly installed earlier Sunday for this game, didn’t get Davis extra room as designed. In the noise and bedlam, May said, not every Owl grasped the hand signal from the bench.

“That was a broken play,” May said. “We don’t run a lot of sets where we have to do this, we have to do that. We’re in these positions where we have to read the defense and play. As we’re coming down in transition with 20 seconds left. Nelly’s got the ball. We added a new action they wouldn’t recognize, and we had a decision to call timeout. If we call timeout, they’re going to load (the defense against Davis), and try to take it out of his hands, so we decided not to call timeout and trust him. When they didn’t bite on his shot fake, I probably should have called with 2 or 3 seconds (left). But when he goes up into the shot, as you see in college basketball a lot of times, when you have a potential Player of the Year on your team, you’ve got to trust him.”

Goldin added 13 points and eight rebounds for the Owls, who are off until Tulsa comes to town Saturday.

In the meantime—the immediate aftermath of the victory—the ESPN2 audience that watched the Owls could switch to football and the teams vying to play on the NFL’s version of Super Sunday.

Not May. His said his dial would stay on ESPN2.

“I’m locked into Memphis-UAB,” he grinned.

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