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THREE-PEAT! Owls advance to AAC semis after third beating of North Texas

Who knows how many times during those fingernails-across-the-blackboard last seconds of FAU’s 77-71 win over North Texas that coaches on the NCAA Tournament bubble everywhere had to pause before hitting “send” on thank-you texts to Dusty May. Just in case.

Because, y’know, sometimes stuff happens in March. And North Texas never quits.

The Owls used a tie-breaking, late 8-0 run to take what sure looked like control Friday in the American Athletic Conference quarterfinals, but the Mean Green did everything possible down the stretch—except hit a couple big shots—to prevent FAU from making a clean break.

It took just 76 seconds for Vlad Goldin, Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin (pictured above via AAC/Cos Lymperopoulos) to open a 70-62 lead with exactly 76 seconds left. But as in the case throughout college basketball this time of year—not to mention anytime the Owls and Mean Green play—stuff happened. And suddenly, there was Jason Edwards rimming out a 3 with 12 seconds left that could have cut the lead to 75-74. Instead, the score stayed 75-71 until Brandon Weatherspoon, who cleared the rebound, hit two free throws that finally settled things.

Even though North Texas never gave up, the Owls never gave in.

“Last year and this year … especially this year, we faced a lot of tough teams and everybody was gunning for us and wanted our name,” said Nick Boyd, who hit two free throws with 49 seconds left to briefly restore the eight-point lead. “So this whole year, we’ve just been fighting and fighting, and just stayed together … and stayed poised.”
Thus did the Owls (25-7) move a game closer to winning the AAC championship in their first year as a league member. And their win in Fort Worth, Texas, also kept hope alive in distant places like Terre Haute, Ind., and Providence, R.I. Schools like Indiana State and Providence are counting on the AAC being a one-bid league, leaving room for an extra at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament field of 68. Most credible bracketologists are certain FAU will have a place in the field no matter what happens this weekend, but they also believe that no other AAC team enjoys that luxury. An FAU championship would mean the AAC is a one-bid league.

The 2-seeded Owls move on to the second semifinal later today, where they will not get the opportunity to avenge their regular-season conference loss to Charlotte. Instead—stuff happens in March—they’ll play Temple (15-19), the 11 seed. After losing 10 straight games in mid-season, Temple is 3-0 in the tournament after its 58-54 stunner Friday over the 49ers.

That game, televised on ESPN2, will begin 30 minutes after the conclusion of the 3 p.m. first semifinal, which matches top-seeded USF (24-6) and 4 seed UAB (21-11). The final is 3:15 p.m. Sunday on ESPN.

First-year North Texas head coach Russ Hodge had nothing but praise for the Owls and his friend May, who completed a three-game sweep of the Mean Green this season by 13 total points.

“You got to give Coach May and his team a ton of credit to come back off of last year's Final Four run and stay together, which very few teams do in this era of college basketball, and put personal agendas aside and get everybody's best shot throughout the whole year,” he said.

“I think their championship experience and their experience together … shines through late in games. There's such a comfort level with everybody out there on the floor. They made a couple more plays than we did, but you got to give them credit.”

Goldin had 21 points against North Texas (18-14). His 10 rebounds included an offensive board which he followed with an and-one to make the score 65-62. Davis had 18 points, 12 in the second half, including a high-degree-of-difficulty jumper that made it 67-62. Martin had 15, including a brazen 3-pointer early in the shot clock—FAU’s only 3 of the second half—that finished off the deciding 8-0 run.

But even before that, May felt the Owls were laying the proper foundation for their decisive move.

“I thought down the stretch, the last five minutes, the 50/50 basketballs, the rim protection, grittiness, really pulled us through and allowed us to get a few baskets in transition,” he said. Then he nodded at Goldin, Davis and Boyd, seated beside him at the postgame media session. “And it came down to these guys making plays, … big-time rebounds, big-time shots, great screens.”

Boyd added 12 points for the Owls. Besides the late free throws, he drove for a layup with 4:49 left that gave the Owls their first lead since North Texas flipped a four-point halftime deficit with two 3-pointers in the first 64 seconds of the second half. He also was FAU’s second-leading rebounder with seven.

Three-point shooting is a major weapon for North Texas, but the Owls gave the Mean Green only a couple open shots from the arc in the first half. Shooting mostly under duress, North Texas hit just 2-of-9.

Though they were less efficient on defense later in the game, the Owls were extremely sharp at the outset, hounding the Mean Green into missing 11 of their first 13 tries overall en route to an early 16-6 lead.

A remarkable individual sequence by Goldin (pictured above via AAC/Cos Lymperopoulos) exemplified the team effort.
Not quite 4 minutes in and FAU leading 7-4, Goldin raced from his defensive position beneath the basket to create a double-team trap in the corner. Two seconds later he retreated and was back in rim-protecting position just in time to force an errant layup from C.J. Noland, and then rebounding the miss.

But he wasn’t done.

Goldin threw an outlet pass and was sprinting to catch up to an Owls transition when Noland intercepted a pass thrown by Davis. Goldin reversed direction and arrived at the rim just in time to thwart another shot from Noland.

“We knew if we were going to play hard, if we were going to stay together and keep making effort plays, getting 50/50 balls, it's going to help to us win over the course of the 40 minutes,” Goldin said.

The bad pass from Davis was one of his six turnovers, which comes with being the focal point of one of the best defenses in all of college basketball. But he turned it on after a slow start. What did he do differently?

“Just stop trying to look for fouls when I would drive to the basket,” he said. “I know every time I look for a foul, I tend to miss shots I normally make.”

FAU might have reached the NCAA Final Four last spring but wasn’t the only team on the floor Friday that made an extended postseason run. The Mean Green were invited to the NIT in 2023 and won five games to capture that tournament. And while they didn’t exactly follow FAU by running it back this season with the same coach and roster—Hodge was an assistant last year, and there was some player turnover—they ran it back with the same defense-first culture. And it almost was enough Friday.

And against other opponents, it might have been.

But senior guard and floor leader Rubin Jones—the winningest player in North Texas history, whose benching with foul trouble coincided with FAU’s late run—said there’s no substitute for what FAU has.

“I mean, a lot of respect to them,” Jones said. “They’ve got a really good team, a really good coach. I mean, they stay together better than any team I've basically played in my career. They're definitely a special team, but that experience and that togetherness, honestly, is what put them over the edge every time.”

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