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No. 25 Owls take flight, head north in advance of NCAA tournament appearance

FAU fans celebrate basketball team's first trip to tournament since 2002
Posted at 9:02 PM, Mar 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-15 21:02:59-04

BOCA RATON, Fla. — The Owls have left their nest and are flying north.

No. 25 Florida Atlantic (31-3), the No. 9 seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament, were traveling to Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday for their first-round game against No. 24 Memphis (26-8).

The Tigers, coached by former NBA star Penny Hardaway, are the No. 8 seed in Friday night's game against the Owls, whose 31 wins are tied with Houston for the most in the nation.

It's a meeting of future American Athletic Conference foes, as the Owls are leaving Conference USA at the end of the season.

Although FAU is 0-1 in its only other NCAA tournament appearance in 2002, fans told WPTV they're keeping the faith.

2002 NCAA tournament banner hangs in rafters at Eleanor R. Baldwin Arena, home of Florida Atlantic Owls, March 15, 2023
A banner signifying Florida Atlantic's only previous men's NCAA tournament appearance in 2002 hangs in the rafters at the Eleanor R. Baldwin Arena, home of the Owls, March 15, 2023, in Boca Raton, Fla.

"There's never been a better time to be at FAU, and these guys, we've built something special this year with this team and this fan base," FAU staff member Ryan Moran said.

Many FAU students weren't even born the last time the Owls punched their ticket to the big dance.

That's true for Chelsea Ishmael.

"Where were you in 2002?" WPTV's Chris Gilmore asked Ishmael.

"Not born," she said.

For Moran, the wait has been a long time coming.

"I've been at just about every FAU basketball game for the past 13 years," he said. "We've been waiting, literally, decades for this."

As players boarded a bus to take them to the airport, they were cheered on by fans and fellow students.

FAU basketball team bus leaves campus for NCAA tournament, March 15, 2023
The Florida Atlantic University basketball team bus leaves the Eleanor R. Baldwin Arena on the FAU campus, March 15, 2023, in Boca Raton, Fla., bound for Columbus, Ohio, where the No. 25 Owls will play in the NCAA tournament.

"I feel like we're the hype men, so if we get the team hype, then they just get locked in and they can, like, push themselves to do better," FAU freshman Emily McCoy said.

Students said they're already proud of a team that's already made history, win or lose.

"When I see them here or I'll see them, like, walking to class or something, it's like, wow, they're real students [who] go here and also, like, great basketball players," Ishmael said.

The winner of Friday night's game will likely face No. 3 Purdue – the top seed in the region.