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Whoa, Nelly! Davis scores 30 as Owls hold off late UAB surge

The way Johnell Davis was mopping the floor with UAB defenders—and briefly also with an actual mop, helping with a wet spot—the path to victory Sunday seemed neat and tidy.

Then the Blazers began creating second-half mischief in the appliance aisle by playing with the microwave.

But Tre Carroll, Jalen Gaffney and Bryan Greenlee rolled up their sleeves in response to the late clean-up call that finally broke UAB’s six-game winning streak, 86-73.

Davis (pictured via Christian Proscia) racked up 30 points as the 24th-ranked Owls (13-4) improved to 3-1 in the American Athletic Conference. He scored FAU's first 10 points and had 19 at halftime, when FAU led 43-24. His final points came with 7:36 to play when, mismatched against a slower UAB big, he signaled for a clear-out and brazenly splashed in a 3-pointer to restore a once-22-point lead back to 17 at 74-57. But after missing their share of good looks earlier, the Blazers (10-6, 2-1) heated up and went on a 3-minute binge of superb shotmaking to close within 76-68.

That’s when Carroll, Gaffney and Greenlee, who had been solid contributors all game, began doing some of their timeliest work.

After two Nick Boyd free throws reopened the lead to 10:

  • Greenlee poked the ball away for a steal.
  • About 15 seconds later, Greenlee assisted on a Carroll jumper.
  • After a UAB miss, Gaffney slipped in to convert an offensive rebound at the other end into a layup and key three-point play that made the lead 15 again.

Greenlee would clear three defensive rebounds in the final 3:05, Gaffney with one. For the game Gaffney’s line was 10 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, while Greenlee’s was 4-7-5.

“Seven rebounds each,” Davis said. “I can’t say (enough) how they’re dogs on the court.”

Carroll also scored one more basket to finish with 9 points in 14 minutes, to go with 3 rebounds and a plus-minus rating of plus-19, the same as Davis.

“I thought Tre was really, really good,” May said “I thought he was good at the defensive end. Tre is an elite offensive player. His passing, his feel, his feet, his hands, his touch—he’s got a ‘quiet eye’ on offense. Defensively he’s getting better, and I thought that was the most encouraging part of his performance.”

That’s the good news. The bad is that he and Isaiah Gaines were pressed into minutes after Giancarlo Rosado suffered an an apparent leg injury which May said, pending an MRI, is likely to keep the junior big man out “for the foreseeable future.”

Davis flourished from the start, missing only six of 16 shots overall and just one of six 3-pointers. He hit his first four shots, including two 3-pointers. Just the way it was drawn up—kinda, sorta, maybe.

“To be honest, we challenged Johnell to be a great screener early and use the attention he’s getting to free up his teammates and then he’d settle into the flow,” May said. “Fortunately, our guys were in good rhythm. They found him, and he found the right matchups with the right space. … And usually, when this guy gets some space, something good happens.”

Davis said it’s only coincidence that he’s scored 66 points combined in his last two games against UAB at the Elly. His 36-point effort last season remains his career high.

“I try to attack each game with the same intensity,” he said. “I saw one go in early and my team kept finding me.”

His torrid shooting dovetailed nicely for FAU with cold UAB shooting to help the Owls play from ahead for all but the first three minutes. UAB, which came in averaging 77.3 points on .436 field-goal shooting, finished a bit below both averages. But even reaching 39 percent is a testament to the shooting in their second-half comeback. In the first half, they were just 10-for-31. Subtract two layups off live-ball FAU turnovers and an offensive rebound score, and the Blazers were just 7-for-28 in their set offense, which partially explains the Owls’ 19-point halftime lead.

Some of that was the Blazers' shooting, but credit a good portion to the Owls' defense. Davis played a key role there, too. He was the principal defender assigned to 6-foot-9, 230-pound Yaxel Lendeborg, a prized junior college transfer who’d averaged 23.3 points and 15 rebounds his three previous games, two against AAC competition. In 27 minutes Sunday, he managed just six shots, eight points and five rebounds.

“Typically, JUCO players take off in December and January, because there’s a little bit of an adjustment period, and (Lendeborg’s) done that. Nelly had him one-on-one, and I thought Nelly did a great job of getting him off his spots and not letting him do what he wanted to do.” May said. May also praised the overall team help against Lendeborg, then nodded toward Davis and added, “but more than anything else I thought it was really just solid individual defense by this guy.”

Rosado, who shared minutes in the post with Vlad Goldin, left the game after being toppled and falling awkwardly beneath the basket. He walked off the floor without help, sat on the bench a few minutes, then walked to the locker room. He emerged after the second half was well under way, his leg in a brace.

Rosado’s absence undoubtedly will increase the burden on Goldin, who Sunday finished with 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting. But May said it also will create an opportunity for Gaines, a 6-8 junior who had been used sparingly. He played just three total minutes Sunday but scored a first-half basket and made sure there wasn’t much drop-off in physical play inside.

“Isaiah fell out of the rotation, but he’s been awesome at practice,” May said. “He’s been a great teammate throughout, and that’s not always easy to do. He’s earned more minutes than he played (today), but if G’s out, it’s going to give he and Tre more of an opportunity.”

That’s likely to begin Thursday, when FAU next plays—at home against Wichita State, which was routed at home Sunday by No. 13 Memphis 112-86.

For now, the Owls are savoring a victory over one of the hottest teams in the conference, led by a premier coach in Andy Kennedy, in a rivalry that followed the teams in their joint move from Conference USA.

May said: “Anytime you can find a way to beat those guys, it’s a good day.”

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