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Owls close 2023 on 72-68 downer to FGCU

If you’re looking for someone to get a ball to drop at your New Year’s midnight countdown, you might want to look elsewhere than the FAU basketball team.

One week after hitting big shot after big shot to upset No. 4 Arizona, the Owls missed with regularity while falling behind early and couldn’t connect when it counted late in a jolting 72-68 loss to badly shorthanded Florida Gulf Coast.

The Eagles (6-9) were missing their top scorer and two other regulars, came in ranked 246th in the KenPom ratings and needed a last-second 3 to beat an NAIA team in their last game, But they walked off the court at Fort Myers with their first win over an AP Top 10 team in program history.

The Owls (10-3), seventh in the Associated Press poll this week, barely resembled the team last seen celebrating their victory over the Wildcats a week ago in Las Vegas.

It wasn’t only shooting. The Owls also committed 11 turnovers including at least two live-ball miscues that led to easy Eagle baskets and also managed for a variety of reasons not to capitalize on the majority of their 15 offensive rebounds. “Other than our rebounding advantage, they probably outplayed us in every facet of the game.” FAU coach Dusty May said.

But shooting did matter. FGCU outperformed the Owls in overall-field goal percentage (48 percent to 41 percent), 3-point percentage (43 percent to 20 percent) and free-throw percentage (63 percent to 59 percent).

Free throw shooting has bedeviled the Owls for much of the season. "We haven’t shot free throws well enough to be championship caliber yet," May said.

But it’s hard to imagine which category will be more stomach-turning for the Owls when they review the game, the free throws—because they shot 27 (missing 11) to Gulf Coast’s eight—or the close-to-a-dozen wide-open misses at the rim including uncontested tip-ins.

“In that regard it felt like (the upset loss to) Bryant," May said. "We were happy with our looks. We’re weren’t able to convert our offensive rebounds for whatever reason. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t go in. When we come up with the rebounds, we have to—we fumbled several of them or dropped it out of bounds. Whatever the case. When you have nights when those things are happening, you have to shoot it better and hit your free throws.”

May thought FGCU’s shooting proficiency shared DNA with that enjoyed by the other two teams to beat the Owls.

“We were getting beat on the first bounce," he said. "But credit to them. They were excited to play. They were much quicker. They got to their spots and just jumped over us. It reminded me of our other losses. Our inability to guard the basketball led us to overreacting in other areas. We’ve got to contain the bounce much better than we did tonight and against Bryant and Illinois.”

After a particularly rough first half, when the Eagles outscored FAU 31-20 over the last 16 minutes, Gulf Coast gradually regressed to its mean even as FAU on several occasions looked to be laying the foundation for a game-flipping run. The extended run never took place. FAU closed to within 55-53, fell back 62-53, tied the game at 62-62 and 68-68. The latter occasion came on free throws by Vlad Goldin with 1:29 left.

Those were the Owls’ last points. Dallion Johnson hit a tie-breaking 3-pointer for FGCU 20 seconds later. The Owls got off three 3-point attempts of their own on their next possession, but Johnell Davis missed two and Alijah Martin missed the other. Goldin and Brandon Weatherspoon (pictured via FAU Athletics) kept the possession alive with offensive rebounds.

“This game felt like we were on the verge of extending some runs,” May said. “We’d drop the ball, we’d lose it, something would happen to stop a run. There was point in the second half where we were playing really good basketball but we’d make an unfortunate error.”

Goldin led the Owls with 21 points and was the exception to the rule in terms of field-goal shooting, hitting 7-of-9. Davis warmed up after a cool start to finish 6-for-13  with 17 points.

The loss brought a disappointing end to a spectacular calendar 2023 in which the Owls:

  • Won 33 of 39 games, with streaks of nine and 11.
  • Won 13 of 14 home games.
  • Won three games in three days to earn one tournament title and three game in four to earn another.
  • Went 3-0 in overtime or double-overtime games.
  • Scored at least 100 points three times.
  • Beat a team that six days earlier had been ranked No. 1 in the country.
  • And of course raised a Final Four banner in the Elly.

But all that matters now is how the Owls start 2024, which begins Tuesday with their inaugural game in the American Athletic Conference, at home against East Carolina.

Expect some soul-searching from the Owls between now and then.

“As a group, we haven’t handled success as well as we need to,” May said.  “…  Our highs are very high and are lows are relatively low.”

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