COLUMBUS, Ohio — Pure, unadulterated joy, entertainment and — oh yes, don’t forget this — exhilarating and thrilling surprise.
That is what Fairleigh Dickinson brought to the Big Dance, playing with three players who were on a Division II team last year and their former D-II coach on Friday night against one of the bluest of blue bloods of the NCAA Tournament.
The Knights, seeded 16th in the East Region, were two days removed from advancing to the bracket of 64 via a play-in First Four win and the smallest team in Division I basketball this season, but they stood tall against the biggest team in the land, No. 1 seed Purdue.
FDU did everything it came to do on a magical night, delivering a stunning 63-58 first-round victory over Purdue in a quintessential David-vs.-Goliath matchup in front of a sellout crowd at Nationwide Arena, earning a Round of 32 matchup with Florida Atlantic on Sunday.
Most of the people in the building had little idea what FDU was or where it’s from. By midway through the second half, however, chants of “FDU! FDU! FDU!’’ were raining down onto the hardwood, and they could be heard all the way back to North Jersey.
The likes of those 40 minutes are why everyone is riveted to March Madness every year. We can’t take our eyes off it, because nights like the Knights’ are always possible.
“What a night,’’ FDU coach Tobin Anderson said afterward, still breathless. “Incredible win for us. Incredible win for our program, our school. Hard to put it in words right now. It just happened, right?’’
Oh, it happened. It was real and it was spectacular.
“We showed why we belong here,’’ FDU’s 5-foot-8 guard Demetre Roberts, one of the three players Anderson brought with him from Rockland County’s St. Thomas Aquinas College, said after scoring 12 points and dishing out four assists.
“I can’t even explain it,’’ said forward Sean Moore, another of the players Anderson brought to FDU. “I’m shocked right now. I can’t believe it. It’s crazy. But it feels amazing.’’
Amazing is what Moore, a native of suburban Columbus who had family in the double digits watching from the stands, delivered. He led the Knights with 19 points, the biggest of which came on a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give FDU a 61-56 lead with 1:03 remaining.
“Our goal is to hang around,’’ Anderson said before the game. “Hopefully you get to a point where it’s a four-minute game, six-minute game, eight-minute game, and you have a chance.’’
This is exactly how FDU and Anderson, who just 10 months ago took over a team that went 4-22 last season, did it. They followed the blueprint right down to the final detail.
With eight minutes remaining, they led 52-49. With six minutes remaining, they led 54-53. With two minutes remaining, they led 56-53.
The Knights (21-15), who were 25-point underdogs, led for 25:42 of the game, compared to just 11:36 for Purdue (29-6).
The FDU win was only the second time in NCAA Tournament history a No. 16 seed upset a No. 1 seed, after UMBC beat Virgnia in 2018. Sixteenth seeds are now 2-150 all-time against No. 1 seeds since the men’s tournament expanded to 64 teams.
Fairleigh Dickinson didn’t even win the NEC Tournament, losing to Merrimack by one point in the title game. Merrimack, however, couldn’t play in the NCAA tourney because it’s still completing its four-year transition from Division II.
After beating Purdue, Anderson said he had people sending him “Miracle hockey speeches and Hoosier speeches all day long’’ to deliver to his team. He didn’t need those. He actually shows his players videos before games as motivational tools, often related to boxing. Before the game Friday, he had something different in mind.
“Today, they showed us a video about a lion,’’ said 6-6 forward Ansley Almonor, who did an amazing job defending Purdue’s 7-4 All-American center Zach Edey, who finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, but didn’t attempt a shot in the final nine minutes. “What makes a lion the king of the jungle? It’s not his speed, it’s not his smarts, it’s just his mentality. We needed to have a lion’s mentality to go out there and be the king of the jungle, go out there and be the better team. And that’s what we did.’’
Anderson had a feeling his team’s pressing style would make Purdue uncomfortable, and he was spot on.
“My dad was a big boxing fan,’’ he said. “Styles make fights. And our style, I thought, hurt them a little bit.’’
Before the game, Purdue coach Matt Painter was transparent when asked what his players had learned from their devastating loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the 2022 Sweet 16.
“That Saint Peter’s played harder than we did,’’ Painter said.
Purdue played hard Friday night. Here’s the thing, though: It’s impossible to imagine any team playing harder than FDU did.
“They earned it, they played better than we did, they coached better than we did and we have to sit in it, we gotta to face it,’’ Painter said.
“I think people see now that we do belong’’ Anderson said. “Here’s the thing: We’re getting better, too. We’re definitely getting better. And that’s an exciting thing.’’