NEW YORK—At the base of the basket stanchion appropriately bathed in a spotlight, Bryan Greenlee was somehow by himself. Despite the pockets of celebrations around him, and the procession up the ladder to cut pieces of the net, he was able to find some amount of solitude to call his girlfriend, Angelina, in the midst of it all. He told her the run doesn’t end here, minutes after his Owls beat Kansas State, 79–76, to go to the Final Four.
“We go to Houston, take care of two more games, that’s it. It’s simple, but it’s gonna be difficult. We can do it. We’re built for this,” Greenlee said.
The Owls have proven that this is far more than just a happy-to-be-here group of plucky upstarts. FAU is certainly under-seeded as a No. 9 seed despite being the 17th-ranked team in KenPom rankings and the 33rd-ranked team in the Committee’s total seed list. They decisively beat Tennessee in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night and went toe-to-toe with Kansas State all night Saturday, digging out of a seven-point deficit midway through the second half and overcoming 22 turnovers.
The key to the win was Vlad Goldin, the 7’1” big man who was a force inside with a game-high 14 rebounds and two blocks. He has dreamed of this moment like any player who takes the floor in a college game. But when the moment comes, it’s always sweeter.
“As soon as I understood [we were] in the Final Four, as soon as I heard the sound … I didn’t think I was gonna be emotional because there were 10 seconds on the clock, but as soon as I saw everything, it was just like, ‘Oh my god, this is impossible. This is unbelievable,’” Goldin says.
FAU coach Dusty May spoke the day before the game about how important it was for the team to preserve its focus after the Tennessee win. His former boss, Mike White (whose brother, Brian, is also FAU’s athletic director), was in the building for the game. The last time May and White were here together, they were coaching the Florida Gators to an Elite Eight run, which included a miraculous buzzer-beater to oust Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
May talked about making sure his team remained down to earth and didn’t lose steam in the aftermath—something he believed the Gators did that year. The staff worked with players to manage distractions as the success swelled through this tournament run, and they played their best basketball at the end of a hard-fought game Saturday just like they did when they stormed back against the Vols two days earlier. FAU aggressively defended K-State’s attempt at a last shot, forcing the ball out of the hands of the Most Outstanding Player of the East Region, Markquis Nowell, and poking it away from Ismael Massoud as the clock expired.
“We wanted to force them to hit a hard, hard shot and finish it with a rebound,” May said. “So we had five quick, tough competitive players and we just wanted to make sure we kept the ball in front, and we didn't put two on the ball because there's complementary guys that stepped up and banged in some tough shots.”
There isn’t often time for slow builds in college sports, but May was given the time and patience to work with his staff and players to build something out of virtually nothing. FAU has only played Division I basketball since 1993, this is just their second tournament appearance and second season where they’ve won more than 20 games. You’d be hard pressed to find a better single season for any sport program on campus besides the women’s beach volleyball team, which made its first NCAA Division I Tournament championship appearance.
FAU, a team that got bounced from last year’s CBI in the first round, is heading to Houston. The Owls have broken through in a big way, and the run indeed does not end here.