March Madness: Florida Atlantic survives Markquis Nowell, Kansas State in thriller for 1st Final Four berth

Florida Atlantic started March with grand total of zero NCAA men's tournament wins in program history.

Now it's going to the Final Four.

The No. 9 seeded Owls beat No. 3 Kansas State, 79-76, in an up-and-down thriller at Madison Square Garden on Saturday to secure the East regional championship and punch the first ticket to next weekend's Final Four. They'll arrive in Houston as the tournament's lowest remaining seed.

They won on Saturday despite committing 22 turnovers while riding a dominant effort in the post from 7-foot-1 center Vladislav Goldin and clutch free throws down the stretch from Michael Forrest. They held off a furious Kansas State rally in the game's final moments to advance.

Frantic final minutes

FAU was in control of the game with a 72-64 lead and 2:44 remaining. A pair of free throws and a Markquis Nowell 3-pointer cut FAU's lead to 72-69 at the 1:49 mark keeping the pressure on FAU.

A Cam Carter 3-pointer then cut FAU's edge to 75-74 with 24 seconds left, turning the game's final moments into a free-throw shooting contest for the Owls.

Forrest delivered. The senior reserve and 77.6% career free-throw shooter converted on 4 of 4 free-throw attempts in the game's final 18 seconds. They accounted for four of his six total points. They ensured that Kansas State would never lead the game again.

Keyontae Johnson foul trouble looms large

The game was a back-and-forth battle from the opening tip. Kansas State took the early edge with a 16-12 lead. Florida Atlantic hit back with a 12-2 run to open up a 24-18 edge. The Wildcats lost Keyontae Johnson to foul trouble in the process. The All-Big 12 forward picked up his second foul with 12:01 remaining and didn't see the court again before halftime. His foul trouble proved to be a pivotal factor in the game's outcome.

FAU, meanwhile, leaned on Goldin, who controlled the post while Kansas State's defense focused on guarding the perimeter. Goldin tallied eight points, eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks before halftime. He finished with 14 points and a game-high 13 rebounds as Kansas State struggled to counter his size.

With Johnson sidelined, Nowell continued to shine on the Madison Square Garden stage with 15 points and seven assists before halftime while dazzling the crowd with his playmaking ability. FAU rode a 53.6% shooting effort from the floor to a 42-38 halftime edge.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 25: Vladislav Goldin #50 of the Florida Atlantic Owls is helped up by teammates after drawing an offensive foul during the first half of the game against the Kansas State Wildcats during the Elite Eight round of the 2023 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament held at Madison Square Garden on March 25, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Vladislav Goldin and FAU have advanced to the Final Four. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Johnson was back on the floor to start the second half. He scored the first two buckets of the half to spark a 6-0 Kansas State run to take a 44-42 lead. But foul trouble struck again. He picked up his third foul with 17:22 remaining. His fourth at the 14:10 mark sent him back to the bench. His bench stay was short this time, but he fouled out with 2:44 remaining and FAU leading, 70-64. Kansas State's leading scorer during the season, Johnson finished the game with nine points and two rebounds in just 18 minutes.

Nowell's heroics not enough

Nowell — the hero of Thursday's Sweet 16 win — did his best to keep Kansas State in the game. He made four second-half 3-pointers in a 30-point, 12-assist effort. But a 15-1 FAU run turned a 63-57 Kansas State lead into a 72-64 FAU edge with 2:44 remaining. The Owls never trailed again.

Forrest's final two free throws saw Kansas State take its final possession trailing by three with 6.9 seconds remaining. Nowell dribbled the ball past half court, but was met with pressure at the logo. He passed the ball off to Ismael Massoud, who was immediately trapped in the corner by a double team. The Wildcats didn't get off a final shot.

FAU found its edge inside

It was a strong offensive showing from both teams. FAU shot 48.1% from the field while connecting on 9 of 23 (39.1%) 3-pointers. Kansas State countered with 46.6% shooting from the field and a 10-of-22 (45.5%) effort from deep. Kansas State won the turnover margin, 22-12, but FAU found its edge on the glass, outrebounding the Wildcats, 44-22. The Owls converted half of their misses into second chances with 14 offensive rebounds on 28 missed shots.

The game ends a thrilling NCAA tournament run for Kansas State that saw Nowell break out as a national star with a pair of dazzling performances at Madison Square Garden. It also marks the end of a brief era for the Wildcats with Nowell and Johnson having exhausted their NCAA eligibility. Johnson will look to hear his name called in this summer's NBA Draft after a harrowing college journey that almost saw his basketball career ended by a life-threatening medical condition. Nowell will wait to see if he caught the NBA's attention with his March star turn.

For FAU, it validates chatter that the Owls were underseeded by the NCAA selection committee. The Owls are ranked 17th in the nation in KenPom ratings, a ranking system based on advanced statistical analysis. They're a balanced team with top-30 rankings in both adjusted and defensive efficiency. The selection committee rated them outside the top 32 teams in the country coming into the tournament.

The Owls have since beaten three higher-seeded teams en route to the Final Four with wins against No. 8 Memphis and No. 4 Tennessee before Saturday's victory over No. 3 Kansas State. They'll face either No. 5 seed San Diego State or No. 6 seed Creighton in next Saturday's Final Four.