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Owls' remarkable comeback falls short at USF

It doesn’t matter that Florida Atlantic almost pulled off the biggest comeback since Jonah escaped the whale. USF’s 90-86 victory Sunday afternoon at Tampa—the Bulls’ 11th in a row—all but knocked the Owls out of contention for the American Athletic Conference regular-season title. It also most likely bumped them from the AP Top 25 for the first time since the next-to-last poll of 2023.

Most important, it invited louder debate about FAU’s once-seemingly sufficient NCAA at-large profile. Particularly for that last reason, it becomes incumbent on the Owls to tackle the rugged final five games of the regular season playing like the team that cut a 25-point deficit to 1 in just over 8 minutes Sunday, and not like the team which, before that, uncharacteristically buckled in response to otherworldly shooting by USF.

“There’s an urgency to have a great practice on Tuesday,” FAU coach Dusty May said.

The way the Owls (20-6, 10-3 AAC) finished Sunday should inject positivity as the Owls address reasons why they fell behind 66-41, 68-43 and then—with only 8:38 left—70-45. That’ll be welcome, considering the Owls take their shrunken margin for error into a five-game gauntlet that awaits. After tall, talented SMU on Thursday come matchups with two teams eager to avenge earlier losses to FAU—Tulane and North Texas—not to mention two games with a Memphis team that has ached for a rematch since the Owls’ last-second victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last March.

So, yes. Positivity is essential the next few days.

“We can’t let the tensions and expectations cause us to not be great teammates at all times,” May told Ken LaVicka and Damon Arnette in his postgame radio spot. “We need a real cumulative strength to go through what we’re about to go through. … It has to be a group effort, and we can’t have anyone take energy away from our group. The positivity, the trust, the things we stress all year, those are the things we have to focus on now. The details of the game will be secondary to those.”

There will be a lot to address Tuesday. There’s a lot to address here, too.

Let’s talk about the comeback first.

Vlad Goldin (pictured above via USF Athletics) had 15 of his career high-equaling 23 points in the second half. Thirteen came in the last nine minutes and seven in an out-of-nowhere 15-0 run that consumed just 98 seconds and left FAU with 7 more minutes to close in.

Two factors largely were responsible for the run. First, instead of taking time to get organized against a USF defense that was changing from possession to possession, the Owls began attacking by what May describes as playing on concept as opposed to scripted movement.

“The presses, the zones—they were throwing different looks at us every possession. It allows you to be stagnant. If you try to call organized offense you just get bogged down. We made a point of just attack the pressure in any way,” May said. “We got to the right spots. We got to the middle of the floor. We were able to duck Vlad a little bit deeper in situations where they weren’t as organized defensively. In the first half I thought they held their ground on him well and kept his catches away from the paint. He played with a lot more physicality and I thought that led to a lot of different things for us.”

Johnell Davis (20 points overall; pictured below via USF Athletics), Nick Boyd (16) and Jalen Gaffney (nine) all made big shots during the run. After a few minutes of point-trading, Alijah Martin (17) got in on the late-game scoring fun, too. His layup with 1 minute left ignited the Owls’ final push, bringing them within 87-81. Gaffney’s layup 9 seconds later cut the difference to four, and Davis’ 3 with 24 seconds left made it 87-86.

Chris Youngblood, who scored 23 points for USF, split two free throws—his only miss in 13 tries—giving FAU an opening to tie for take the lead. Davis drove the left side but lost his balance in traffic and his short jumper missed badly, sealing the game.

May thought Davis might have been trying to draw a foul. In hindsight, maybe stopping short and looking for other quick-hit options might have been better, he said, but then again: “In the last 20 seconds when you’re trying to score as quick as possible and he’s trying to get to the rim. He’s as efficient a scorer in the paint as anyone in our league.”

Now let’s talk about why such a comeback was necessary.

The difference in the game ultimately wound up USF’s edge at the free throw line, where the Bulls were 27-for-34 while the Owls were 18-for-24. But at halftime, the story was the Bulls’ 3-point shooting and collateral havoc it created.

Well into the second half, Youngblood and guard Selton Miguel were a combined 7-for-7 from the arc before missing. Miguel, whose productivity off the bench has been a difference-maker for USF all season, scored a game-high 25 points and finished 5-for-8 from and 3, like Youngblood, hit some from unconscionable distance. In the first half, which ended with the Bulls on top 46-31 going on 48-31 (more on that), the Bulls were 8-for-13 in 3s.

That’s not unusual, May said.

“Youngblood’s ability to sit down in space at about 25 feet is really, really unique,” May said. “You can talk about it (at practice) and show it (on film), but until you realize how deep he shoots—there’s a reason he’s as efficient as he is and mature. Guys like that have a imprint on teams. He’s a special basketball player. He’s a winner.”

The Bulls’ 3-point shooting also opened up driving lanes for the Bulls to score on drives as well. That’s also not unusual.

For a long stretch, luck—in the form of odd-bounce rebounds and iffy calls—favored the Bulls as well. (USF shot two free throws to begin the second half after referees went to the monitor as the teams were heading off at halftime and assessed a debatable flagrant foul on Goldin.) None of that is unusual over a long season, either.

What was unusual: How FAU responded to increasing adversity as the Bulls were rolling up their huge lead.

“I thought once we got down we made some panicky mistakes we … haven’t made for a couple of years,” he said. May counted five times the Owls fouled jump shooters after release. He also noted players with heads down allowing the Bulls (19-5, 12-1) easy transition dunks that only fed the fervor of the sellout crowd of over 10,400.

“We definitely played well enough to win for 20 minutes. They deserved to win as well,” May said. “That’s what makes it tough. One played well one half, one played well the other.”

So finally, let’s talk perspective. The KenPom rankings before the game listed FAU at 27 and USF at 100. That was never an accurate reading of the difference between the teams, May said.

Metrics like KenPom and NET rankings reward teams for strong starts in the pre-conference season and penalize teams that start slow. FAU, bringing back an experienced team, had beaten the likes of Arizona, Texas A&M and others in November and December while the Bulls were trying to mesh new parts including coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, his staff, as well as Youngblood and other transfers that followed them from 2023 Atlantic Sun-champion Kenesaw State.”

“We’re evaluated over six months,” May said. “South Florida didn’t start off well, and so their metrics are not good because of how they were in November with a new team, new staff. You have the same basketball team with a completely different aura. They’re being penalized for November and we’re being rewarded for November. … Are they one of the top 65 teams in college basketball today? It’d be hard to find too many people who’d say they aren’t. Now, were they a top 65 team in November? I don’t think you could find anyone who says that they were.”

May said he’s not surprised at the Bulls’ success under Abdur-Rahim, a close friend since the two served together almost 20 years ago at Murray State, May as an assistant and Abdur-Rahim as a grad assistant. Even while May was turning around FAU, he relished his friend’s accomplishments at Kennesaw State, a four-year turnaround from a one-win team to an NCAA Tourney participant that almost knocked off Xavier.

At Christmas break last season, May even was back home at Indiana University watching Kennesaw State play a Hoosier team with two future NBA players to a standstill for almost 30 minutes. He watched Youngblood silence Assembly Hall with a 3 to give Kennesaw a 37-34 lead in the second half, and Brandon Stroud—another subsequent transfer, who started Sunday for USF and scored five points—drill another 3 to tie the Hoosiers at 43-43.

“You could see what kind of special group they had as far as the connections between the connections and the coaches and the players, everyone throughout the program. Am I surprised? Absolutely not,” May said.  

In fact, in the first half FAU got big dose of what Owls opponents experienced last season. A team better than the sum of its parts playing with unshakeable belief and therefore playing to its ceiling and shooting through the roof. A deep, productive bench. The ability to stack one separation-widening play on top of another.

“The culture piece is really special,” May said. “You can can tell they made it through whatever it was early in the season that kept them from being their best. When you watch them play, the unselfishness they play with, the care and joy they have for each other, they have something very, very unique. And that can be gone in a day.

"That’s the difficult part. Just because you have it doesn’t mean you’re going to continue to have it.”

That’s the same culture for which FAU is known. And it will be tested the rest of this season.

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