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Owls steal one back they almost gave away

Here’s one for people who love to debate stuff like whether a play at the end of a one-point game matters more than any play that happens earlier.

Calm courage enabled Alijah Martin to hit two outcome-flipping free throws with .4 seconds left that gave FAU an 85-84 victory Thursday night at Tulane. But the freebie basket that Brandon Weatherspoon delivered 20 clock minutes earlier, thanks to head-in-the-game alertness, counts the same. And every point mattered on a night that well could have ended with New Orleans as the latest stop on the Owls’ recent recent “Someone’s First Victory Over A Ranked Team Since Whenever” tour.

More on Weatherspoon later. First, Martin’s saving free throws—which came after 24th-ranked FAU (12-4) almost wasted Nick Boyd’s career-high 21 points by surrendering a late nine-point lead to a 10-0 Tulane run.

Martin was fouled by Tulane’s Jaylen Forbes as he launched a last-gasp 3 trying to bail the Owls out of a seemingly failed final possession. The Green Wave, down 83-74 with 3 minutes to play, had scrapped back and taken an 84-83 lead on forward Collin Holloway’s short power drive with 27 seconds left. FAU, which missed four shots including three 3-point tries during the final Green Wave push, got off three more shots in the last six seconds. Boyd (pictured via FAU Athletics) missed in heavy traffic on the baseline, then Johnell Davis missed a jumper.

The game felt over when Davis and a Tulane player batted the ball out to the deep right wing. But Martin raced over to grab the ball wheeled, gathered and launched. Forbes, who probably deserved a better fate after scoring 23 of his game-high 28 points in the second half, committed a clear foul—his fifth.

May noted that FAU was at the other end of a last-second foul call on a jump shot Saturday at Charlotte. The ensuing two free throws broke the tie. “We foul on an 18-footer with 1.7 seconds left,” he said. “We didn’t like that call. I’m sure Tulane didn’t like this call. But it is what is is."

The game—and for FAU, who knows what more—may have been in the balance, but Martin strode to the free-throw line with utterly confident body language. Maybe he was reflecting on the words of Boyd in a team huddle seconds before.

“I said, ‘What better way to do it than right in front of your family, right in front of your backyard,’  " Boyd said “He kinda smiled.”

By the time Martin—who grew up in Summit, Miss., less than 2 hours away— took the basketball at the line to shoot, his “cheering section” had swollen. Dozens of Tulane students who’d migrated from their seats, waved wildly at him from behind the basket. Nevertheless, he swished the first shot for the tie, back-ironed the second, and swished the third.

Thus did FAU steal back its first road win in the American Athletic Conference. The Owls are 2-1 in the AAC, while Tulane (10-5 overall) is 1-2 in the conference.

“I hated that it came down to the end. I wish we could have separated earlier. We had a nice lead,” FAU coach Dusty May said. “… I think both teams probably deserved to win.”

The Owls clearly weren’t great at protecting leads but were pretty good at opening them, especially in the first half. When Martin fed Davis for a layup and a 19-8 lead at 14:56, FAU already had its sixth assist—one more than in the entire upset loss at Charlotte on Saturday. The ball was moving and FAU was manipulating the Tulane match-up zone to get the shots it wanted.

At that point, the Owls were 8-for-13 in field goals—and that includes an FGCU-flashback empty possession with four misses at the rim. They started the game with a Vlad Goldin post move, a Bryan Greenlee layup, a Martin 3 that rewarded a Davis hustle offensive rebound, a Goldin hook and a Davis jumper. In those first four minutes-plus, the Owls  hit 3-of-4 3s, played turnover-free and had four offensive rebounds.

“We started to resemble the best version of ourselves, but we still have to fix a few things,” May said.

One of those things might be ignoring natural urges when the competition starts getting personal. In the last 15 minutes that of the first half that followed Tulane coach Ron Hunter’s timeout, the Owls missed 17 of 23 shots overall including 12 of 15 3s and committed seven turnovers. “From my perspective, I thought we got into some personal battles and maybe tried to go after the guy that went after us, and we lost our flow,”  May said.

And there was Tulane taking advantage. Emboldened by a rocking home crowd—“great environment,” May said—the Green Wave came back to take the lead 38-37 before Greenlee went to the line for a 1-and-1 with 28 seconds till halftime.

He missed. The ball bounced to Weatherspoon’s side of the lane. Nobody on Tulane moved, as if everyone thought Greenlee was due a second shot. Unguarded, Weatherspoon casually banked in what looked no more challenging than a shoot-around 6-footer. FAU went into halftime ahead 39-38.

"I laughingly told Doug Shows, the official, that I was glad there was at least one player out there paying attention,” May said. In fairness. Goldin also jumped for the rebound, only to have it bounce Weatherspoon’s way. But his point still was well taken. “It was a one-possession game,” he said. “That basket meant something.”

The second half loosely followed the same pattern, with FAU taking a pair of 10-point leads early, then Forbes hitting four 3-pointers (including three in a 72-second span) to close the gap, then moving comfortably ahead again—the lead reached 83-74 on Weatherspoon’s 3 with 3:03 to play—before the final act to this drama began.

Only six Owls scored, five in double figures. Boyd led the way, followed by Goldin (19 points plus 11 rebounds), Davis (14 points plus eight assists), Martin (14) and Greenlee (10). Weatherspoon finished with seven.

Boyd was restored to the starting lineup for the first time since he injured himself late in the loss to Bryant on Nov. 18. He missed seven games and came off the bench in the five since his return. In 29 minutes Thursday, he hit 7-of-15 shots, including 6-of-11 3-pointers.

“He made huge plays, he showed great leadership on the court. I thought he turned down a couple of good looks to get great looks,” May said.

Boyd said he had a conversation with someone prior to the Charlotte game who had had been observing uncharacteristic low energy his previous games back. He responded with 19 points off the bench in that game.

“I felt when I was going though my injury, my energy dropped and I was consumed with myself,” he said Thursday. “… In the Charlotte game I decided that no matter how many minutes I played, I was just going to have positive energy. I went out there and had a better game than I had had prior. I just wanted to continue doing that and, when you think less about yourself, good things start to happen.”

Boyd’s trey-and-1 with 5:36 left, followed by another 3-pointer a minute later, seemed to position FAU for a comfortable finish. Some of the subsequent misses by FAU that let Tulane back into the game came early in the shot clock, prompting postgame questions whether May approved of them. Turns out, he did. The Owls were breaking the press and getting open looks, and May said staying aggressive and taking those shots works better for this team than slowing the game down to burn off time.

“I’m certain when we look at the film as a staff we’re going to like those shots,” he said. “That’s why we have such great spurt-ability. We don’t pull it out and run the clock, and tonight it almost burned us. But it’s helped us more frequently than it’s hurt us.”

What definitely helped the Owls Thursday was an significant uptick in tenacity at rebounding and pursuit loose balls. Outrebounded and often outhustled by Charlotte, FAU was relentless at both against Tulane. The last possession might have had a more depressing ending if not for that commitment.

“It cost us the Charlotte game. They were more aggressive to 50-50 balls," May said. "And credit our guys. They fixed the things that needed to be fixed.”

More things need fixing, he acknowledged. But he’s confident his Owls will do what’s necessary.

“We’re going to have games where we play much, much better,” he said. “I was just proud of our ability to find a way.”

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