In one of the most dramatic upsets of the 2023 college basketball season so far, the No. 14 Florida Atlantic Owls shocked the No. 4 Arizona Wildcats 96-95 in double overtime on Saturday in Las Vegas. Led by senior guard Johnell Davis’ 35 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists, FAU earned their first-ever win over a top-10 opponent.
Back-and-Forth Battle Goes Down to the Wire
The game featured 20 lead changes and 17 ties, the definition of a heavyweight prizefight. Arizona’s National Player of the Year candidate Azuolas Tubelis battled through foul trouble to post 21 points and 10 rebounds. But it was Caleb Love’s 32 points, including a clutch three at the end of regulation to force overtime, that nearly lifted the Wildcats.
In the end, Davis and the Owls made one more play. His stepback jumper with 0.4 seconds remaining finally sunk the cardiac Cats.
“Johnell was terrific. Caleb Love was special too. It was just one of those games with great shot-making and great passion by both teams,” said Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd.
Florida Atlantic, out of Conference USA, improved to 11-1 with by far their biggest win in program history. Meanwhile, Arizona suffered their first loss of the year after opening the season 11-0.
How Arizona Reached This Point
The Wildcats entered the contest not only undefeated but absolutely steamrolling opponents. Their average margin of victory sat at a staggering 29.5 points per game.
Lloyd’s squad returned every key piece from last year’s 33-4 Elite Eight team. But they lost three projected first round NBA Draft picks this offseason in Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko. Still, Arizona looked even better to begin 2023, blitzing opponents with a lethal offensive attack.
All five starters came in averaging double figures, led by Tubelis (20.3 ppg) and Love (16.5 ppg). Lloyd’s motion offense and the stellar guard duo set the table for what most viewed as a potential Final Four team. Arizona earned a No. 4 ranking and looked to make a statement against FAU, a quality mid-major.
Scouting the Upstart Owls
While Arizona entered with lofty expectations, not much attention centered on Florida Atlantic. Picked to finish fifth in Conference USA during the preseason, the Owls lost their top two scorers from last year’s 19-15 NIT team.
But new coach Dusty May engineered an incredible turnaround in Year One using transfers and an explosive offense. Davis, a McNeese State transfer, looked like one of the most underrated guards in the country. Seven-foot center Vladislav Goldin gave FAU a legitimate big man and rim protector down low.
The Owls reeled off ten straight wins against mostly low and mid-major programs. A true road test at Ole Miss proved their mettle in an 85-75 win over the SEC foe. FAU entered Saturday with a chance to take down Goliath and earn a signature victory for their program.
The Game Itself: Physical Play and Offensive Fireworks
As expected when two high-octane offenses clash, points came fast and furious. But whistles blew even more often in this physical affair with 50 total fouls called.
Arizona led 50-49 at halftime following six ties and ten lead changes already. Tubelis fought through two quick fouls to pour in 14 points in the opening stanza. On the other side, Davis tallied an ultra-efficient 21 points on just ten shot attempts.
The second half witnessed more sloppy yet entertaining action. Arizona built an eight point lead before FAU clawed back with under three minutes left. Davis tied the game on an acrobatic reverse layup and drew Tubelis’ fifth foul.
After neither team scored on their final possession in regulation, overtime delivered even higher intensity. The raucous Vegas crowd created an NCAA Tournament type atmosphere with seats shaking after each jaw-dropping bucket.
Arizona held a three point advantage in the closing seconds of overtime before Davis splashed a game-tying triple. More free basketball awaited both squads already drained heading to double overtime tied 85-85.
Clutch makes defined the second extra session. An open Love triple handed Arizona a 92-89 edge with just over two minutes left. After multiple lead changes yet again, the outcome ultimately came down to final possessions.
Tied 95-95, Davis nailed the stepback jumper despite great defense from Love. Arizona still had one last chance but Courtney Ramey missed a well-contested triple at the buzzer. Florida Atlantic and their rabid bench mob swarmed the court in pandemonium.
Love (32 points) and Tubelis (21 points, 10 rebounds) posted monster stat lines for Arizona in defeat. Ramey added 15 points while Pelle Larsson scored 14 off the bench before fouling out. But balanced scoring paved the way for FAU as four players reached double figures beyond Davis’ 35 points.
Looking Ahead for Both Teams
Florida Atlantic heads into conference play brimming with confidence after this program-defining victory. Picked fifth in C-USA during the preseason, they look like legitimate contenders for the championship and automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
The Owls certainly built a strong enough non-conference resume between wins over Ole Miss and Arizona with only a two point road loss against Omaha. They should compete for their first NCAA appearance since 2002 if they translate this success to C-USA play.
Meanwhile, Arizona must rebound quickly from this heartbreaker entering Pac-12 action. With no key non-conference wins beyond San Diego State, the Wildcats need a strong showing in league play to lock up a top-three seed in March.
Their high-powered offense gives them a chance every night. However, Arizona must improve defensively after allowing 1.05 points per possession against FAU.
This loss stings but all the Wildcats’ goals remain in front of them. The Pac-12 looks weaker than normal without a clear favorite outside UCLA. Expect Arizona to compete for a conference title and bounce back from this upset.
College basketball delivered an early Christmas miracle with this instant classic showdown. Arizona entered with Final Four aspirations but ran into a talented mid-major peaking at the right time. Davis announced himself as a legit NBA prospect while carrying FAU to new heights.
The Owls authored the storybook ending this time, but the Wildcats boast enough firepower to make their own magic in March. Both programs exit Las Vegas with momentum despite the heartbreaking defeat for Arizona. Each squad could make noise again come tournament time after this unforgettable night.
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