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Owls upset Tennessee 62-55 in Sweet 16, soar into Elite 8

FAU takes lead late in game, knocking off No. 4 seed Volunteers
Florida Atlantic Owls guard Brandon Weatherspoon reacts during second half of Sweet 16 game of NCAA tournament, March 23, 2023
Posted at 10:34 PM, Mar 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-24 14:11:47-04

NEW YORK — When the horn sounded on the greatest victory in the history of Florida Atlantic athletics, Nick Boyd and Bryan Greenlee hopped onto the press row table to celebrate.

Instead of going to the locker room, some of the Owls players made their way up into the stands to sing "New York, New York" with their fans.

The Boca Raton, Florida-based school that has only been competing in Division I for the last 30 years, and had just one previous appearance in the NCAA tournament, is now a victory away from the Final Four.

The Owls used a second-half push led by Michael Forrest to upset fourth-seeded Tennessee 62-55 on Thursday night in the Sweet 16.

Ninth-seeded FAU (34-3) will play third-seeded Kansas State in the East Region final at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

"Yeah, our guys definitely feel like they belong on this stage," fifth-year coach Dusty May said.

Even before the tournament started, this was the unquestionably the greatest season in FAU history. Now the Owls are one of the biggest stories in all of sports.

"We're just a scrappy group," Boyd said. "Unbreakable."

Johnell Davis led the Conference USA champions with 15 points and Forrest finished with 11, including eight straight when FAU took control in the final 10 minutes.

Florida Atlantic Owls guard Johnell Davis shoots over Tennessee Volunteers guard Josiah-Jordan James in second half of Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament, March 23, 2023
Florida Atlantic guard Johnell Davis shoots over the defense of Tennessee guard Josiah-Jordan James during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the East Regional of the NCAA tournament at Madison Square Garden, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in New York.

The Volunteers (25-11), who were looking for the second Elite Eight appearance in program history, shot just 33% — including 6 of 23 from 3-point range. Josiah-Jordan James and Jonas Aidoo scored 10 points apiece.

"Certainly proud of the effort that these guys have given us all year, through tough times with injuries, but when it ends like this, it's always disappointing because we want it all and came up short," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.

Barnes has made 27 NCAA tournament appearances with four schools, but he has reached the Elite Eight only three times and gone to one Final Four.

The game was slogging along at Tennessee's style and pace. The No. 1 defense in the country, according to KemPom metrics, out of the rugged Southeastern Conference was making FAU work hard for shots.

Then the Owls started hitting the 3-pointers they had been missing for much of the first 30 minutes.

"We got great shots even in the first half when they were in us a little bit," Boyd said. "The second half, they dropped, we broke it open a little bit."

Florida Atlantic Owls guard Nicholas Boyd reacts after play against Tennessee Volunteers in second half of Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament, March 23, 2023
Florida Atlantic guard Nicholas Boyd reacts after a play during the second half of a Sweet 16 game against Tennessee in the East Regional of the NCAA tournament at Madison Square Garden, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in New York.

Forrest made consecutive 3s to put FAU up 41-39 with 9:49 left, the Owls' first lead since the opening minute.

Forrest capped a personal 8-0 run with driving layup that put the Owls up four.

Meanwhile, Tennessee couldn’t buy a bucket. The Vols had a six-minute stretch during which they scored four points.

"Obviously we missed open shots, they missed open shots. But we were disappointed in the way we played. We knew we had to play tougher, but we were up five points, so ..." James said, trailing off.

Brandon Weatherspoon's putback of a 3-point miss off the side of the backboard made it 51-41 with 6:47 left.

The Vols had one more push left. James swished a 3 with 3:33 left to cut the Owls' lead to 55-50.

The Owls turned up the defense, getting a key stop that led to a fast-break layup by Boyd to put FAU up 57-50 with 2:31 left.

The Owls salted it away with free throws from there, as the orange-clad Vols fans emptied out of MSG and the outnumbered FAU fans took over.

Owls fans serenaded May's wife, Anna, with an "F-A-U!" chant before finally filing out of The Garden.

May had compared Tennessee's defensive physicality to rugby in the run-up to the game. He meant it as a compliment, and his Owls showed they could play tough, too.

"We feel like we're physical as well," Boyd said.