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One down, two to go! Goldin, Gaffney lead Owls past Tulane

In less than 3 minutes of play following the first TV timeout of the second half Saturday at The Elly, FAU doubled a 10-point lead over Tulane. The Owls had found their happy place.

But then the Green Wave coaxed FAU into a yappy place wherein the Owls lost their focus—requiring more work to be done before finishing off a 79-73 victory.

The Owls might even have found themselves in a legitimately sweaty place if the Green Wave’s 3-point and free-throw shooting had been as impactful as their chatter. Tulane missed 16 of 19 shots from the arc. The overall disparity in free throw misses was small (FAU was 20-for-28, Tulane 14-for-24) but the Green Wave left enough points at the foul line in the second half at momentum-swinging times that might have tightened the game sooner and bought them time to come closer.

Nonetheless, the Owls (22-7) escaped with the win they needed to keep off NCAA Tournament Bubble conversation for now. They entered the final eight days of the regular season needing to sweep three games—Saturday, next Wednesday at North Texas and next Saturday on Senior Day against Memphis—to feel they’ve done enough to secure their second straight tournament bid as an at-large team. Of course, they also can earn the American Athletic Conference’s automatic bid by winning the conference tourney in two weeks. As of Saturday, the Owls would be seeded second in the AAC Tourney behind USF, which clinched the regular-season title by winning at Charlotte.

Any slip next week could put FAU (22-7) in an uncomfortable position as just another lottery ping-pong ball competing in the Selection Sunday hopper with ping-pong balls from every other conference.

“I think if we win these next two, we’ll feel much better about our chances. We won’t have to play cheerleader watching Big East or Big Ten or Big 12,” FAU coach Dusty May said.

The Green Wave (13-15) have lost six straight and nine of 10 and are scraping the bottom of the AAC standings after a respectable 3-3 start that included a win over Memphis when the Tigers were ranked 10th in the AP poll. One of those losses was 85-84 to the Owls in New Orleans on Jan. 11. In that one, the Green Wave scored 10 straight points in the last 3:03 to erase a nine-point FAU lead. The Owls got a reprieve when Jaylen Forbes fouled Alijah Martin on a last-second 3. Martin sank two free throws for the win.

Forbes and Martin maintained high profiles throughout a rematch that extended to the postgame handshake line after Martin’s double-double. But more on them later.

In large part, the Owls motored safely to port ahead of the building storm because Jalen Gaffney (pictured top, center via Richard Pereira) was a steady rudder and Vlad Goldin was a 7-foot-1, 240-pound anchor.

Goldin (pictured top, bottem-left via Richard Pereira) had 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting and a game-high 12 rebounds. He also blocked three shots. Beyond the stats, he looked to dunk whenever possible on one end and was a clear deterrent at the rim on the other, especially in the second half.

“To be honest, I didn’t like what I did the last five games. I tried to play as physical as I can, get the deepest position I can, and take the most valuable shots,” Goldin said. “On defense, I tried to trust my teammates to get rebounds (while I) block shots.”

Gaffney scored 13 points, contributing a season-high three 3-pointers to the Owls’ team total of seven. But more important, when the Owls’ ball movement started slipping, the senior point put his experience and savvy to work in slowing them down and getting them mission-focused again. He was a plus-15 in plus-minus, meaning the Owls outscored tghe Green Wave by 15 in his almost 26 minutes on the floor.

“It seemed like he was really trying to lead, like a veteran point guard should.” May said. “He had great composure. We never questioned his body language or his positive energy. I thought he played a very, very good floor game overall.”

Martin (pictured below via Richard Pereira) surpassed that with plus-19, on a day he scored 13 points and pulled down a career-high 11 rebounds, nine offensive.

He also got Forbes’ attention from start to finish, including postgame, when his refusal to shake hands with Martin in the line set off a quickly-extinguished micro-tussle.

During the game, Forbes also had words with various occupants of the FAU bench and got in a dead-ball mixup with Johnell Davis that earned them each a technical foul. At that point, the FAU lead was 56-39. In almost no time, Forbes was nailing a 3 that capped a 9-0 run and tightened the score to 56-46 with almost 11 minutes still to play.

The double technical was an inflection point. During FAU’s run, there was zero chirp from the Green Wave. The Davis-Forbes skirmish drew players from both teams and moved the adrenaline meter needles on both sides into the red danger zones. For FAU, that meant a departure from the play that built the 20-point lead—a few minutes of rushed transitions and a longer stretch of blockout errors leading to fouls.

Fouls mounted quickly against FAU, including a call against Brenen Lorient that was—perhaps questionably—upgraded to a Flagrant 1. Early on, the Green Wave—one of the national leaders in free-throw disparity—was trailing the Owls, but whether through overanxious FAU play, overzealous officiating, or both, the Green Wave was soon in the bonus, then in the double bonus, then in whatever comes next. Luckily for FAU, the Green Wave missed some in the middle parts of the second half.

Still, the Owls were in a position May felt they could have avoided.

“Our behaviors are contagious, and we all have to keep our composure and stay poised and rally around the right things instead of getting caught up in the skirmishes when you don’t play together,” he said.

It’s not the first time it’s happened to the Owls this season.

“Every time we get into one of those it derails what we’re doing,” May told Ken LaVicka and Damon Arnette on his postgame radio spot.

A Nick Boyd jumper—two of his 10 points—reopened the lead to a dozen. FAU had to answer a reinvigorated Green Wave almost basket for basket thereafter to keep the lead in double figures until the last minute—by which time Johnell Davis had fouled out after being held to eight points.

Gaffney made a difference in that stretch, hitting two free throws and assisting on a Goldin score.

Still, the Owls needed two free throws each from Boyd and Brandon Weatherspoon in the last 35 seconds to hold off the final Tulane push.

Flagrant foul or not, the Owls also got a lift from Lorient. With Tre Carroll unavailable because of an elbow injury suffered in practice this week—and with Giancarlo Rosado benched early after two quick fouls—Lorient played almost 13 minutes. He responded with four points, two rebounds and a presence on defense.

May hopes to have Carroll back before the regular season ends.

Meanwhile, Davis had another tough game before fouling out, managing just seven shots—hitting two—and committing four turnovers. He did have a team-high five assists and was plus-11. Asked what the Owls needed to do to help restore Davis to the All-America form he’s displayed most of the season, May replied that isn’t the singular mission.

“We need to play good team basketball, every possession for 40 minutes,” he said.

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