NEW YORK (AP) — Alijah Martin sent a message early for upstart Florida Atlantic, soaring to the basket for a one-handed jam and chirping with the Kansas State players about his poster moment at Madison Square Garden.
“They’re going to label us whatever, but we’re some pit bulls and Rottweilers,” Martin said.
Now they can call the ninth-seeded Owls a Final Four team.
Martin and FAU withstood another huge game by Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell and brushed off a deficit in the final eight minutes to beat the Wildcats 79-76 on Saturday night.
FAU (35-3), making just its second appearance in the NCAA Tournament and first since 2002, won the East Region and will head to Houston to play the winner of Sunday’s South Region final between Creighton and San Diego State.
“I expect the prognosticators to pick us fifth in the Final Four,” fifth-year FAU coach Dusty May said.
In one of the most unpredictable NCAA Tournaments ever — all four No. 1 seeds were out by the Elite Eight — the Owls from Conference USA typify the madness.
The winningest team in Division I this season had never won an NCAA Tournament game before ripping off four straight, all by single digits, to become the first No. 9 seed to reach the Final Four since Wichita State in 2013. The Owls are the third No. 9 to get that far since seeding began in 1979.
“Honestly, all the things people say just fuels us to go out there and play even harder,” said Bryan Greenlee, who scored 16 points before fouling out. “They can say whatever they want, say we’re a Cinderella team, say we don’t belong, but we’ve constantly proven people wrong all season.”
Nowell, the 5-foot-8 native New Yorker — @MrNewYorkCityy on Twitter — was incredible again at Madison Square Garden, with 30 points, 12 assists and five steals. In the Sweet 16, Nowell set the NCAA Tournament record with 19 assists in an overtime win against Michigan State. He didn’t get enough help this time.
Nae’Qwan Tomlin was the only other player in double figures for Kansas State (26-10) with 14 points. Keyontae Johnson, the Wildcats’ leading scorer, fouled out with nine points.
“Keyontae played 18 minutes, and that’s why he was neutralized,” said first-year Kansas State coach Jerome Tang, who took over a team that went 14-17 last season.
Martin scored 17 points, including a huge 3 down the stretch, the 7-foot-1 Vladislav Goldin had 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Michael Forrest made four clutch free throws in the final 20 seconds for the Owls, who held steady as the Wildcats made one last push.
Cam Carter made a 3 from the wing with 22.8 seconds left to cut FAU’s lead to 75-74 and Kansas State sent Forrest to the line with 17.9 seconds left. The senior made both to make it a three-point game.
Nowell found Tomlin inside for a layup with 8.6 seconds left to cut the lead to one again, and again K-State sent Forrest to the line. With 6.9 remaining, he made them both.
With no timeouts left, Nowell rushed down the court, gave up the ball to Ismael Massoud outside the 3-point line —- and never got it back. FAU’s Johnell Davis swiped it away and time ran out.
“I was trying to get Ish a shot,” Nowell said. “Coach wanted Ish to set the screen, and I waved it off because I felt like on the right side of the court, that’s where Ish hits most of his shots. And they closed out hard to him, and he didn’t get his shot off.”
Nowell was named the most outstanding player of the region after his final collegiate game, but FAU turned out to be the best team.
“I gave my heart and soul to this university, to this team,” Nowell said. “I maximized everything I had inside of me to see these guys happy.”
As the Owls built their lead in the final minutes, Kansas State fans who had packed the building became anxiously quiet and the “F-A-U!” chants started to rise.
The Owls rushed the floor to celebrate a historic moment for the school. FAU didn’t even have a basketball program until the late 1980s and has only been in Division I for the last 30 years.
“I’m living the dream right now,” Forrest said.
FAU held up to Tennessee’s bully ball in the Sweet 16 and dropped a 40-point second half on the best defense in the nation to eliminate the Southeastern Conference team.
Against one of the Big 12’s best, FAU dominated the boards, 44-22, and became the first team from C-USA to to reach the Final Four since Memphis in 2008.
The Owls aren’t hanging around much longer. They’re moving to the American Athletic Conference next season. But first: a trip to Texas.
FAU: The Owls put together four straight winning records under May before breaking through with a season for the ages that nobody saw coming. They were picked fifth in the C-USA preseason coaches’ poll.
Kansas State: The Wildcats were trying to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 1964.
Florida Atlantic is a combined 0-3 against San Diego State (0-2) and Creighton.