Fairleigh Dickinson became the second No 16 seed in history to win an NCAA tournament game, stunning top-seeded Purdue 63-58 behind 19 points from Sean Moore and a relentless, hustling defense on Friday night.
The shortest team in the tourney, the Knights (21-15) showed no fear in swarming 7ft 4in All-America center Zach Edey from the start. FDU’s players were quicker and more composed than the Big Ten champion Boilermakers (29-6).
Five years ago, UMBC showed the way for the little guys by overwhelming Virginia in the first 16-over-1 victory after numerous close calls over the years. Still, No. 16s had a 1-150 record against No. 1s and were 1-151 overall before FDU’s shocker.
“We just had faith in what we do,” FDU coach Tobin Anderson said. “Our guys are so tough and competitive. I love our guys. They’re tough and gritty and they played their tails off. That’s an unbelievable win. We just shocked the world.”
After the final horn, FDU’s players mobbed each other on the floor of Nationwide Arena, where the fans from Memphis and Florida Atlantic joined forces in cheering on the Knights in the final minutes.
The Knights will now meet the Memphis-FAU winner on Sunday for a Sweet 16 berth and a trip next week to play at Madison Square Garden in New York – just a short drive from the private school’s campus in Teaneck, New Jersey.
“We just made history, boys … college basketball history, for this whole school,” coach Tobin Anderson told his team in the celebratory locker room. “We’re playing pretty damn well now. Hydrate, do all stuff you do, the ride is not over yet. We can do something more.”
Fairleigh Dickinson didn’t even win the Northeast Conference Tournament, falling by one point in the title game to Merrimack, which couldn’t participate in the NCAA Tournament because of an NCAA rule that bars it from the postseason because it’s still completing its four-year transition from Division II.
FDU held Purdue scoreless for more than 5 1/2 minutes down the stretch and moved ahead by five on a 3-pointer by Moore – who is from suburban Columbus – with 1:03 left. The Knights held on from there, becoming the second straight double-digit seed to send the Boilermakers home. Purdue was a 3 seed when it lost to 15 seed Saint Peter’s, another small New Jersey school, in the Sweet 16 last year.
Edey finished with 21 point and 15 rebounds in what may have been his final college game, but the Knights consistently denied him the ball in the second half. He didn’t attempt a shot in the final nine minutes. The junior center is a possible NBA lottery pick, but the bitterness of this defeat could sway him to stick around for another year.
The Knights’ two prior NCAA tournament wins came in the First Four, including this year, when they drubbed Texas Southern 84-61. After that game, Anderson told his players he believed they could handle Edey and Co.
“The more I see Purdue, the more I think we can beat them,” Anderson said in the locker room.
Some of Purdue’s players said they felt disrespected by the comments, which turned out to be prophetic.
Just being in the tourney was quite an accomplishment for FDU, which went 4-22 a year ago.
This was Anderson’s first season at the school, and after he landed the job in May, he held a practice the first night just so he knew what he had to work with from a team that had the second-worst record in the program’s 58-year history.
It wasn’t a lot, so he brought three players – 5ft 8in Demetre Roberts, Grant Singleton and Moore – along with him from Division II power St Thomas Aquinas.
Turns out, they’re giant slayers.
And it was the Boilermakers, not the undersized Knights, who were scrambling from the opening tip. Purdue may have had Fairleigh Dickinson outsized on the floor and in the stands as a boisterous group of Boilermakers fans gave their team what felt like a home-court advantage despite being 240 miles from West Lafayette, Indiana.
However, when the Knights’ Joe Munden drained a step-back 3-pointer in the first half, “F-D-U!” chants broke out inside the arena and it became obvious this small team had big dreams.
Without a player on its roster taller than 6ft 6in, Fairleigh Dickinson sometimes needed two players to guard Edey – one in front and one behind – and he missed his first three shots before a dunk.
Edey showed some frustration and at one point told one of the officials, “Sir, he’s holding my left arm.”
Purdue eventually settled in and reeled off 11 straight points – four on Edey free throws – to take 24-19 lead. The Knights, though, responded with their own spurt and Heru Bligen’s layup after a steal helped FDU take a 32-31 into halftime.
Roberts finished with 12 points and 6ft 4in forward Cameron Tweedy had 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting for FDU.