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Johnell Davis' dominant night powers FAU basketball to historic Sweet Sixteen

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Everything about the sign was ambiguous minus the location.

In the nightcap of Sunday night’s two second-round NCAA Tournament games at Nationwide Arena, No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic was about to tip off against this year’s Cinderella, No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson. In shocking No. 1 seed Purdue on this court two days earlier, the Knights became the second No. 16 seed in March Madness history with a shot at reaching the Sweet 16.

Standing in their way were the Owls, intent on making a little history of their own. And it was behind their bench, amid a sea of red, that one fan held aloft a sign reading, “HISTORY IN THE MAKING”.

It might not have been the underdog story fans outside of Florida were tuned in to see, but it was the one Florida Atlantic was primed to deliver. With a 78-70 win against the Knights (21-16), Florida Atlantic (33-3) leaves Columbus with more to play for in what is already the winningest season in program history.

The Owls will be playing in the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history and are only the eighth No. 9 seed to get there since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Florida Atlantic will face No. 4 seed Tennessee in Madison Square Garden with specific details to be announced, and it will bring the nation’s third-longest winning streak along.

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Mar 19, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Florida Atlantic Owls guard Bryan Greenlee (4) and guard Johnell Davis (1) defend Fairleigh Dickinson Knights guard Joe Munden Jr. (1) during the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch
Mar 19, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Florida Atlantic Owls guard Bryan Greenlee (4) and guard Johnell Davis (1) defend Fairleigh Dickinson Knights guard Joe Munden Jr. (1) during the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Florida Atlantic led for more than 30 minutes and soaked in the final seconds of regulation comfortably ahead with their spot in program history assured. The Owls outscored the Knights 27-16 in the final 9:18, leaving no need for the last-second dramatics of Friday’s 66-65 win against No. 8 seed Memphis.

"We just made enough plays to win," coach Dusty May said. "We settled in against their press and just had enough in us. We never felt like we were a Cinderella story because of our record, because of the players in that locker room."

Johnell Davis led Florida Atlantic with 29 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, and he was the last player to leave after doing a national television interview on the court. He exited to the band playing, the cheerleaders swaying underneath the basket and the Owls’ cheering section with arms aloft, soaking up the moment. Demetre Roberts led the Knights with 20 points.

"I can’t really explain that moment," Davis said of what it felt like running off the court. "I’m just living in the moment really. That’s all."

When the Owls and Knights opened the second half, Florida Atlantic’s berth in the next round seemed little more than a formality. Befitting a team coming off the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history, Fairleigh Dickinson came out flat and the Owls took advantage with a 9-0 run to open the game and were ahead 11-3 five minutes in when everything started to get a little tougher.

Florida Atlantic would go scoreless for the next 2:11, allowing Fairleigh Dickinson to creep back into the game. The Knights would pull within a point on two occasions, but a Davis putback and then a Giancarlo Rosado layup kept the Owls ahead each time. And when Brandon Weatherspoon hit consecutive 3-pointers a moment later, Fairleigh Dickinson called timeout when Florida Atlantic’s lead at a game-high 11 points with 6:19 left in the half.

It would become a 32-25 halftime lead for Florida Atlantic, but the second half would be a different story. Fairleigh Dickinson used its defense to fuel its offense, forcing Florida Atlantic into three turnovers and two missed shots as the Knights rallied and took the lead with a 12-1 run. That made it a 37-33 deficit for Florida Atlantic, which wouldn’t make a field goal until Davis’ steal and layup with 16:31 left.

Mar 19, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Florida Atlantic Owls guard Brandon Weatherspoon (23) celebrates a three pointer with guard Johnell Davis (1) during the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament against the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch
Mar 19, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Florida Atlantic Owls guard Brandon Weatherspoon (23) celebrates a three pointer with guard Johnell Davis (1) during the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament against the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

As the fans from the evening’s Michigan State-Marquette game that stuck around aligned themselves with the Knights and pulled for the upset, Florida Atlantic finally pulled away near the midpoint of the second half. Down 54-51, Nick Boyd tied the game with a 3-pointer at the 9:03 mark that was the start of a 7-0, game-sealing run. Davis followed with a layup, and when Boyd drove and flipped a pass over his head to Boyd for another layup it was a 58-54 lead with 7:58 to play.

The Knights would keep coming, but the Owls would not trail again. A Greenlee 3-pointer from the left corner with 1:29 to play was the dagger, making it 72-64 and removing any doubt for the final 79 seconds.

"I cannot describe this feeling," Vladislav Goldin said. "It’s Sweet 16. We’ve been watching in on TV every March. It’s something I would love to accomplish and we did it."

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: FAU basketball: Johnell Davis' dominant night denies Cinderella FDU