March Madness: Florida Atlantic's improbable run moves on to Elite Eight with upset win over Tennessee

Florida Atlantic’s magical season will carry on into the Elite Eight.

Before this season, FAU had never played in an NCAA tournament game in program history, which dates back to 1994 at the Division I level. After Thursday night’s upset 62-55 win over Tennessee in the Sweet 16 in New York, the Owls have won three NCAA tournament games in the span of a week and improbably clinched a berth in the Elite Eight in the process.

Tennessee, the East's No. 4 seed, is a veteran team that relies on its physicality, and that was on full display in last week’s Round of 32 win over Duke. And early in the game vs. FAU, Tennessee’s defense imposed its will.

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The Owls, the No. 9 seed, turned the ball over nine times in the first half and missed 11 of its 14 3-point attempts as Tennessee packed the paint and forced FAU to shoot over the top. Many of those outside shots were uncontested. Tennessee built a lead, but not a sizeable one. The Vols shot an uncharacteristic 42.9% from 3 in the Duke win, but reverted to their more typical shooting struggles in this one.

FAU spurred on by one-man offensive spurt

Tennessee shot 31.3% from the field in the first half and built only a 27-22 lead at the break. In the second half, FAU switched up its approach. The Owls attacked the rim. Eight of their first 12 second-half shots were two-point attempts and the Owls began to make some shots and chip away at the Vols' lead.

The Owls also attacked the offensive glass and played with a bit more edge on the defensive end. By midway through the half, the tides had turned.


FAU’s Michael Forrest went on a personal 8-0 run to flip what was a 39-35 Tennessee lead into a 43-39 lead with 9:10 to play.

That run grew to 18-2, allowing FAU to hold the lead the rest of the game as its advantage grew to as large as 10 points.

Tennessee had one last run that cut the FAU lead to five points, but couldn’t string enough made shots together to ultimately overcome the mighty Owls, who will move on to face No. 3 seed Kansas State on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.


With the win, FAU became the seventh No. 9 seed to reach the Elite Eight in NCAA tournament history.

Florida Atlantic guard Johnell Davis (1) brings the ball up court as Tennessee guard Josiah-Jordan James (30) defends during the second half of a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the East Regional of the NCAA tournament at Madison Square Garden, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Johnell Davis (1) led Florida Atlantic with 15 points in an upset of Tennessee in the East regional semifinal in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Tennessee's offensive woes were costly

While Forrest's personal 8-0 run spurred the comeback, Johnell Davis led FAU with 15 points after scoring only two in the first half. Nick Boyd added 12 points and eight rebounds while Forrest finished with 11.

FAU ended up shooting 42% from the field, a far better mark than Tennessee's 33.3%. More impressive, FAU won the battle on the boards, 40-36, and edged Tennessee in second-chance points (14 to 12) and points in the paint (26 to 22).

On the Tennessee side, only Josiah-Jordan James and Jonas Aidoo reached double figures, but they had just 10 points apiece. Leading scorers Santiago Vescovi and Olivier Nkamhoua combined for 15 points on 5-of-20 from the field. It was a major step back on a big stage for UT's veterans, especially after Nkamhoua posted a career-high 27 points in the second-round win over Duke. The absence of starting point guard Zakai Zeigler, who is out with a knee injury, was significantly felt by the Vols.

Tennessee has reached the NCAA tournament five times in its eight seasons under head coach Rick Barnes but has never advanced past the Sweet 16. Barnes hasn't coached a team into the Elite Eight since 2008 when he was at Texas. That means he has gone 11 straight tournament appearances without getting through the Sweet 16.