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Owls upset No. 4 Arizona in 2OT thriller

Oh, and Happy New Year, too!

FAU ensured the jolliest of holidays for Owls fans everywhere with an indescribably satisfying 96-95 trip-up of fourth-ranked Arizona in double overtime on Saturday in Las Vegas.

The Owls knew exactly what they were up against as they journeyed into a thicket of big bodies, bigger bodies, quick hands and quicker hands, not to mention the mercurial long-range shooting of Caleb Love. But when Love’s would-be game-winning rainbow 3 bounced into the hands of Johnell Davis, who flipped it into the empty forecourt at the buzzer,  the 14th-ranked Owls had dealt Coach Tommy Lloyd only his 13th loss in 83 games over 2 1/2 years in Tucson.

They hung in like few teams could after Arizona erased deficits in the final minute of regulation and the first overtime to extend the game.

“I was in the huddle with the team, and I kept saying believe, believe, and we’re going to come out with a W,” said Davis, who hit too many big shots to recount along the way to 35 points, nine rebounds and three steals.

The game featured big swings and dramatic shots throughout, from Arizona scoring 14 straight points early on for a 17-3 lead to FAU countering with runs of their own. It was a true holiday gift for the national viewing audience, even if they’re heading to the return counter today in the desert.

“I’ve been on staffs at Indiana, Southern Cal and Florida, and this felt like a mid-February game with a conference championship on the line,” FAU coach Dusty May said. “Obviously, neither team is in late-season form quite yet. We’re still figuring a lot of things about ourselves. But from my seat, that was a high-level basketball game.”

It was the biggest regular-season victory in program history, and in a game played at elevation, the Owls elevated their play, from Davis and Jalen Gaffney (20 points) on down.

Davis (shown via Ethan Miller) came within one point of his career high (last season against UAB) and four of the school record shared by DeAndre Rice and Earnest Crumbley. With all due respect, Rice scored 39 against Troy and Crumbley did the same against Campbell. Davis got his on 15-of-27 shooting against the second-ranked defense in the country according to Ken Pomeroy, and scored 23 of his points after halftime.  He also played 49 of 50 minutes.

Some might consider that rising to the occasion. Not Davis.

“I just try to go out there and play each game the same. Just work in between the lines and compete.”

May has a word for that: Hooper.

”He’s never fazed by the moment, by the stage. He’s added so much to his game—the mid-post turn-around jumper is something he didn’t have last year. It’s just hours and hours of work. I told him the first thing that came to my mind in seeing him at 7:30 a.m. out on the floor shooting those shots. It was the result of his work. He loves basketball, he’s a great teammate, but most of all he’s an ultimate competitor. I don’t know that I’ve been around anyone more competitive than him. I’ll say that for sure.”

If this was Davis’ legacy game so far, it also was Gaffney’s. The senior guard scored 17 of his points after halftime including seven in the two overtimes. He hit three crucial 3s and committed only one turnover at point guard. He played 40 minutes, during which time FAU outscored the Wildcats by 13.

Then there were wings Alijah Martin and Brandon Weatherspoon. Martin scored 13 points including a bold 3-pointer that broke a tie late in the first OT and ranks as one of the bigger shots in the game. Weatherspoon scored just five, but his lone 3-pointer opened the scoring in a second half to signal FAU would not be satisfied with being within 37-31 at halftime. He also grabbed eight rebounds and played stellar defense in his 34 minutes, as is reflected by his remarkable, team-high plus-19 finish.

The post guys made impacts, too, even matched against Oumar Ballo (7-foot, 260) and Motejius Krivas (7-2, 260). Vlad Goldin tweaked his knee in a scary first-half moment but eventually returned to the game and gave the Owls 23 serviceable minutes before fouling out. His backup, Giancarlo Rosado, did what Giancarlo Rosado does despite conceding even more size than Goldin. In 22 minutes he repeatedly steadied the team at uneasy moments and also scored eight points, including a free throw that broke a 95-95 tie with 57 seconds left.

“Giancarlo Rosado is a heck of a basketball player,” May said. “He’s got a lot of blood, sweat and tears invested in this program and doesn’t get a lot of the accolades, but if you took him away from our team, it wouldn’t look anything like this.”

Finally, there reserves Tre Carroll and Brenen Lorient, who combined for just six points in eight minutes but made plays that mattered. Carroll was again pressed into emergency post duty and essentially played the Rosado role in FAU small ball, initiating actions with dribble handoffs. But he also coolly stepped to the line with 2:05 left in the second OT and hit two free throws to boost the Owls’ lead to 95-90.

Lorient? Let’s play “what if.”

The Owls already had spent a good chunk of the first half closing that 17-3 deficit to 27-25. But Arizona reasserted itself on defense, those quick hands getting busy, causing deflections and triggering turnovers transition scores. The Owls were getting sped up, the Wildcats were in command of momentum. Arizona appeared en route to yet another transition score, with a long pass headed to a Wildcat racing downcourt and only one Owl back on defense.

What if Lorient hadn’t uncoiled to tip that pass out of bounds, just in time for the under-4 timeout wherein FAU got calmed down enough to  finish the half just six points down?

The Owls were back engaged, even moving out to an eight-point lead in the second half before Love (26 points, but on 8-for-25 shooting) heated up and got Arizona going again.

The ball ended up in Love’s hands after a timeout with 6.7 seconds left set the strategy for a game-winning shot. The Wildcats have lots of options for that situation (imagine the irony of Keshad Johnson, a transfer from San Diego State, taking that shot), but chose to try to free up Love on the wing by curling him through a congested lane. FAU, with five guards on the floor, responded with a switch that left Martin reasonably challenging the shot.
“Our guys were very loud on the switch,” May said.

Now the Owls are off until Dec. 30, when they visit Florida Gulf Coast in the final non-conference game.

In the meantime, basketball fans across the country are left to appreciate their steely will and ability to “hoop” no matter the opponent or circumstance.

“They’re unflappable,” May said. “No moment’s too big. If a team’s going to beat us it’s because they outplayed us and not because of the moment.”

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