The end: Florida Atlantic stuns Volunteers

Marvin Westwestwords

Tournament upsets are a lot of fun until one happens to you.

Underdog Florida Atlantic, strangers in the big time, slapped a very sudden dead end on the Tennessee season, sent the Vols home and took their place in the NCAA Elite Eight.

The Madison Square Garden knockout was 62-55. The losers hit 33 percent, embarrassing because many attempts were wide open.

Tennessee credentials proved meaningless. Success in the Southeastern Conference, the impressive victory over Duke and the advantage in size and depth didn’t make much of an impression on the Owls. They looked quicker. Their hustle gathered more rebounds. They outscored Tennessee by 12 in the second half. They deserved to win.

FAU coach Dusty May didn’t seem too surprised.

“After the first seven minutes or so, we felt like we really settled in and played good basketball. We were playing our type of game. We were playing with great physicality. We did an unbelievable job on the glass despite our size. It’s a testament to how hard these guys play and their drive and determination.”

The game broke open on an 18-2 second half Florida Atlantic run.

“I’ve got to give credit to Tennessee,” said guard Nick Boyd. “Their defense is great. They put a lot of pressure on us at first, and it took a little bit to get used to as a unit.

“They’re long. They’re big and physical. They push into you, they make you uncomfortable.”

Some really good Tennessee seniors deserved a better fate. Don’t forget there was a time when this team was 18-3. Injuries marred and scarred the season. February and early March were loaded with bad luck. Highlight was a win over No. 1 Alabama.

The seniors combined for 14 of 50 in their last game. Rick Barnes was asked about the struggle.

“It was hard,” said the coach. “I could talk about a lot of different things, but the fact is those guys have been through a lot. They’ve dealt with it.

“These guys have won a lot of games for us. I’m telling you, it’s hard being in the locker room with these guys when you know how hard they’ve worked, and I would tell you that they’ve maxed out in a lot of good ways.

“I feel for them because I know they’re not going to be happy. It’s hard to get here. I can only tell you we’re proud of this group of seniors and what they’ve done with our program.”

How deep is the disappointment?

“We’ve been through so much in the past however long the season has been going on, and I feel like a lot of people don’t know all the things that we’ve been through,” said Josiah-Jordan James.

“Even to make it this far is a blessing. People counted us out after the second game, when we lost to Colorado. They told us our season was over then.

“But we didn’t hear any of that. We heard but we didn’t listen. I think that if everybody outside of our locker room knew all the things that we went through, they’d be proud of us. I know we’re proud of ourselves.”

Tennessee’s 3-point defense was generally good and often great this season. It was not good in the second half in New York. The Owls started to rub out a 39-33 deficit with 11-plus minutes remaining. Guard Michael Forrest hit a corner three as the Vols got caught in a switch. Forrest hit another on the following possession and added a two-pointer before Jahmai Mashack interrupted the run at 10.

“Oh, man, I don’t even know how to explain it, just my teammates set me up perfectly just so I could make the open shots,” said Forrest. “I owe it all to them.”

Alijah Martin started another scoring streak with a three but Jonas Aidoo kept the Owls from putting the game away. Aidoo was Tennessee’s best – 10 points on four of five shots and seven rebounds.

Olivier Nkamhoua, hero of the Duke game, went scoreless for 34 minutes but finished with six points. He missed seven shots. JJJ and Santiago Vescovi went 3-for-11. JJJ had 10 points and Santi nine. He had seven rebounds.

Florida Atlantic has a 34-3 record without much to brag about. It defeated Alabama-Birmingham to win Conference USA and nipped Memphis in the first round of this tournament. It did score 103 at Rice.

“Our guys, our staff, players, everyone in our program certainly feel like we belong here,” said Coach May.

(Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is


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