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Owls too tall, too quick, too 'locked in' for Liberty

There’s an old saying in basketball: Jimmies and Joes beat x’s and o’s.

That was pretty much the story behind FAU's 83-58 rout of previously unbeaten Liberty on the opening night of the Field of 68 Tip-Off.

This matchup of teams that are mirrors of each other in preparedness, connectedness, relentlessness and competitiveness was settled in favor of the 6-1 Owls by superior athletes making superior athletic plays.

The Flames (5-1) were ranked 20th nationally in defense, allowing 60 points, by staying disciplined to team concepts and scouting reports and then mixing in some handsy physicality. That was evident at the opening tip when they broke up an action that could have led to an FAU backdoor layup. What was equally evident was that the Flames’ choice of sticking with FAU's three-point shooters at the arc opened the game for the Owls to other palatable options. It simply was hard for Liberty to stop one-on-one drives to the basket.

FAU coach Dusty May praised his team for taking what the defense gave it. He noted that Alijah Martin (20 points), Bryan Greenlee (12 points) and Jalen Gaffney (eight points) “all got to the rim repeatedly and were able to finish efficiently. We took advantage of the right matchups. We took advantage of the right spacing.”

That’s not something you often see against Liberty.

“We’ve had teams try to drive the ball against us, some really good teams, and we’ve been able to stand 'em up, get in front of ‘em, take the charge, give up a tough two and not putting them on the line, but that didn’t happen,” Flames coach Ritchie McKay said.

If stopping drives was difficult for the Flames, it was almost impossible for them to stop 7-foot-1 Vlad Goldin when the Owls got him the ball isolated in the paint against a single defender six inches shorter. Goldin scored 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting and 4-of-4 free throws to lead FAU to a 46-26 edge in points in the paint. Giancarlo Rosado (pictured via Bob Markey II) added nine points and nine rebounds in just 15 minutes off the bench.

“We haven’t had that trouble with interior presence for awhile, but that’s why they have a chance to be a national champion,” McKay said.

McKay likes to say his team has been successful by being able to “see the need, identify the need and address it.” On Thursday, there was no way to address:

 – Goldin whirling left and scooping an underhanded layup beneath his defender's two vertical arms.

 – Brenen Lorient leaping almost over the baseline in transition and turning an overthrown alley-oop pass into an assist on a Martin corner 3-pointer.

 – Martin (six rebounds, three steals) doing all kinds of the usual Alijah Martin things.

“Even though Alijah had a great stat line, the biggest impact he had were the loose basketballs and the extra possessions that alleviate stress for our guys of having to make shots or doing something great at the offensive end," May said.

 – Johnell Davis, held scoreless except for two free throws, doing other Johnell Davis things like rebounding his own missed layup as he was landing on the other side of the basket and in one motion finding Greenlee out front for an open three.

The Owls were equally connected at the other end, beginning with holding Flames leading scorer Kyle Rode to six points—10 below average—and none in the first half.

 “All of our guys were very decisive,” May said. The switching, the rotating … all those things, I thought the guys really locked in.”

The Owls next play Saturday against College of Charleston, the third team in the Field of 68 round-robin. Liberty plays Charleston on Friday, with FAU safely in the rearview.

“They’re incredibly impressive," McKay said of the Owls. “I love their team, their individual parts, but their cohesion makes them a really tough out. They made us unlike the best version of ourselves."

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