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No Shocker! Martin helps Owls survive Wichita State's fast start, upset bid

Last-place Wichita State’s early 17-4 lead Thursday was a big jolt to 23rd-ranked FAU, a national ESPN2 audience and a packed house at The Elly that included Miami sports celebs Jimmy Butler, Aleksander Barkov and Glen Rice.

The Owls were able to absorb the Shockers' onslaught, though, and wound up with a valuable American Conference victory, 86-77. Alijah Martin and reserve Tre Carroll were a couple of the main Shocker absorbers.

Martin (pictured via FAU Athletics) scored 16 of his season-high 22 points and grabbed seven of his team-high nine rebounds in the second half, when FAU rallied from a 42-31 halftime deficit. Carroll, taking all of injured Giancarlo Rosado’s minutes backing up starting center Vlad Goldin, scored eight of his 10 points in the first half to basically ensure the Owls’ hole wasn’t any deeper.

Johnell Davis (19 points) and Goldin (17) also were impactful during the comeback. They combined for 25 second-half points to help FAU (14-4) move to 4-1 overall in the AAC and 3-0 at home. Home wins are precious in the extremely competitive conference—as 10th-ranked Memphis can attest. Four days after blasting Wichita State 112-86 in Kansas, the erstwhile league co-leader Tigers were tripped up at home Thursday by South Florida 74-73, ending a 10-game winning streak.

It’s fact of life that nothing is going to come easily for anyone in the league, FAU coach Dusty May believes.

“You see Memphis’ first two (AAC) games—to the wire. You see our games—to the wire. You think about even our game here with East Carolina. On the stats sheet it looks like a comfortable, double-digit win, but lit was a one-possession game with 5 1/2 minutes left,”  May said. “South Florida’s a good basketball team. Every night’s going yo be a challenge.”

The Shockers (0-4 in the ACC but 8-9 overall) had the early look of a team ready to spring its own surprise. They hit their first three 3-point attempts and seven of their first 11 shots overall to move out to that 13-point lead 5 1/2 minutes in. FAU started slowly in field-goal shooting and got way worse before getting better. At halftime the Owls were being outshot 58 percent to 36 percent overall and 42 percent to 8 percent behind the arc, where the Owls went 1-for-12 and missed 10 straight after Carroll hit one.

The Owls didn’t overwhelm Wichita State with second-half three-pointers as Memphis did Sunday in hitting 13-of-20 to bust open a three-point game at halftime. But their 8-for-15 shooting was enough to create a turnaround when coupled with a defense that limited the Shockers to just six tries and three makes in the second half. Martin hit all four of his treys in the second half.

“We just tried to pick up everything we were doing,” Martin said. “We tried to get more rebounds, get more steals, stuff like that. We knew going into the second half we weren’t going to shoot terribly again, so just put the trust in our work and dig it out. “

Increased intensity mattered after the way the Owls finished the first half, when they surrendered the last 14 points. There’s not much differently they would have done defensively about the start, though.

“Early in the game as a staff when we spoke, we were down 17-4 and there probably was one defensive possession we were disappointed in," May said.  "A couple of blocked shots squirted to them. A loose ball bounces off someone’s foot and lands in a shooter’s hands. We knew that wasn’t sustainable, but we had to pick up our energy and effort.”

The stepped-up defensive intensity unlocked things at the other end of the court, too.

“I thought our guys found great rhythm playing off each other in the second half,”  May said. "They screened, they ran, they did a lot of dirty work for each other so the shots could be in rhythm as opposed to being just one-on-one basketball."

The halftime score was an outlier of sorts. Apart from field-goal percentage—and rebounding, which Wichita State led 19-14 largely thanks to a few fortuitous bounces at the offensive end—the vitals all favored FAU. The Owls had more shots (the first stat May zeroes in on), the better free-throw percentage, more assists, more blocks, more steals and fewer turnovers.

The Owls also were even in bench scoring 10-10, largely because the first half was—what do the kids say on social media?—Tre Carroll SZN. The junior entered the game the first time with the Owls down 13. Less than a minute later he snapped a defensive rebound off to Bryan Greenlee for what became a fast-break layup by Jalen Gaffney, who'd entered the game at the same time as Carroll. Thirteen seconds after that, Carroll made steal to begin an FAU possession he finished off with his own 3.

A couple minutes later, he flew in from the wing to follow an FAU miss with a two-handed dunk that became a three-point play. But he still wasn’t done. His hook shot at 10:18 cut Wichita State’s lead to 22-17 and began a 7-0 run that tied the game. FAU actually took three leads, the last of which peaked at 31-28 before the Shockers outscored the Owls 14-0 over the last 5:50.

The play by Carroll that May talked about the most, though, came in the second half—and again mere seconds after he had re-entered. The Owls down 64-60 and building energy toward a last push, Carroll swooped in to steal an outside-his-area offensive rebound that led to a Nick Boyd-assisted Martin 3.

“Big offensive rebound … and those are the impacting plays, those are the energizing plays,” May said. “Those are the ones that give us momentum. Those are the ones that knock (opponents) on their heels a little bit. I thought that was the biggest possession of the game.”

It sure got the building rocking, and the momentum continued with a lead-flipping 3 from Boyd and two more 3s from Martin that put FAU in charge 72-66. From there the Owls weren’t seriously threatened, some late nuisance officiating calls notwithstanding. Some of those whistles came from hardworking Jeff Anderson, who has had one day off the last two weeks (according to insiders on sociial media) but clearly was displaying as strong a finishing kick as the Owls.

The biggest component to the Owls’ finishing kick probably was their second-half rebounding. FAU actually ended up outrebounding the Shockers 36-29. Wichita State coach Paul Mills said FAU’s ability to grab 14 offensive rebounds to his team's 25 defensive rebounds was particularly damaging.

“I don’t want to get into all the numbers, but we know how Florida Atlantic wins and we know how they lose. The metrics are clear. And we can’t give up 40 percent (offensive rebounds),” Mills said.

May thought the Owls simply were quicker to the ball in the second half.

“Our rebounding became five guys fighting like crazy for every single possession, and I don’t think that was necessarily the case in the first half," he said. "Sometimes, when you’re shooting so poorly, that’s just how human nature works.”  

In the end, though, the Owls pulled out the win in front of current Miami Heat star Butler, Florida Panthers star forward Barkov and retired Heat star Rice. Butler sat prominently in the front row near center court.

“I heard a few weeks ago through an acquaintance of his that he was going to come to the game,” May said. “We didn’t know for sure where he was going to sit. But he wanted to check out a game. Once again, that’s a compliment to our guys, that we play this game the right way, play with intensity and passion, they represented this area, this school very, very well, and with that people want to come check it out.”

The Owls were aware Butler was watching them, but Martin said they didn’t draw special inspiration. To the contrary.

“Nah, but much respect to Jimmy,” Martin said. “We saw him. We talked about playing basketball and not getting carried away, not doing extra stuff. Just play FAU brand basketball.”

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