COLUMBUS, Ohio — The fairy tale came accompanied by the steady beat of chants from the stands.
“FDU! . . . FDU! . . . FDU! . . .”
Later, one of the winners would mention that noise, and how it added to the magic, and the awful storm forming above the heads of the Purdue Boilermakers.
“We heard the chants,” Fairleigh Dickinson guard Grant Singleton said. “And that just made us want to go harder.”
Move over UMBC. There’s a new partner in charm and history.
Move over Virginia. You’ve got company in infamy.
All hail Fairleigh Dickinson, the little team that could, and that includes becoming only the second men’s No. 16 seed to dump a No. 1 in all of the months of March there have ever been. Demetre Roberts, the guard who directed this charge — a 63-58 stunner of Purdue — sat in the locker room afterward and discussed an incredibly rare feat.
“I definitely watched that game. With UMBC upsetting Virginia that year it gave every other team that was an underdog a type of fire to go out there and show they belong.
“It’s March, man. Anything can happen. So why not?”
Why not? When all it takes is once.
The cell phone of the Fairleigh Dickinson coach was hot with messages Friday on that very topic.
“It’s like that Miracle speech in hockey,” Tobin Anderson said, bringing up Herb Brooks’ famous talk to the U.S. hockey team in 1980 before going out to shock the Soviets. “Everyone’s sending hockey speeches and Hoosiers speeches all day long. If we played them 100 times, they’d probably beat us 99 times. We play them 100 times, we have one win. But tonight’s the one we had to be unique, we had to be unorthodox.”
And when everyone is done hailing the Knights, maybe someone can figure out the star-crossed and haunted world of the Purdue Boilermakers. Even the many ghosts in Purdue’s tournament past had to be astonished by this. No. 1 seed, playing relatively close to home, so powerful on paper.
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“It’s a really hard thing,” Matt Painter said as the stricken coach, a role he has played so often before. “We have worked very hard and done things the right way in our program.
“You can just try to fight to get in the best position possible. And now we’re in the best position possible and this happens. And obviously it hurts. It hurts bad.”
The two teams were on the same stage Friday night; an amazing study in karma contrast.
The underdogs were in blue. It didn’t matter they come from a program that was 4-22 last season. Or that late in February they were barely above .500 with 14 losses, having been swept by Sacred Heart and pounded by 29 points at Richmond. Or that had Northeast Conference tournament champion Merrimack, transitioning to Division I, been eligible for the NCAA tournament, Fairleigh Dickinson would not have even been in the bracket.
“We’re a little irritated,” Anderson said. “We all have a chip on our shoulder. People say we shouldn’t be here, we shouldn’t be in the tournament, all that kind of stuff we have to listen to. We want to prove people wrong.”
It didn’t matter the Knights were giving away 10 inches inside, and the tops of the heads of a good many of their players were level with Zach Edey’s chest.
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It didn’t matter that two nights before, in a moment of loose-lipped exuberance, the coach had allowed himself to be filmed telling his players that hey, we can beat these guys. Some theorized that would drive the Boilermakers to an even high level of Defcon and be on full alert. But it didn’t. The coach was dead-on right. Tobin Anderson, meet Joe Namath.
“I’m not sure I meant it,” he said. “I wanted our guys to believe. Now I would have preferred that there was not a camera in there. It was the right message, wrong audience.”
As Roberts mentioned, “The coach’s job is to install confidence in us. When it reaches a point where it’s me vs. you, why not pick yourself?”
It didn’t matter that five days before, the highly ranked Purdue Boilermakers were celebrating as champions of the mighty Big Ten. While the unknown Fairleigh Dickinson Knights were only second place in the NEC. It didn’t matter that this time last year the coach was in Division II, and so were three of his guards.
It didn’t matter that the Knights couldn’t shoot 40 percent Friday night, and they were badly outrebounded and outscored by seven points at the free throw line and had six shots swatted.
It didn’t matter that the hero of the First Four, Ansley Almonor with his 23 points, had one free throw Friday and missed all four of his shots.
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There’s more than one way to skin a Boilermaker. Fairleigh Dickinson did it with gall and effort and getting hands on about a gazillion balls. And with defense that turned the part of the Purdue offense not named Zach Edey into a train wreck.
The idea was to swarm on Edey with waves of shorter Knights, making every move a chore.
Anderson: “We’re the shortest team in the country but we made him uncomfortable.”
Edey: “A lot of times they would have one dude guarding from behind and one dude basically sitting in my lap.”
Edey got 21 hard points but Anderson was fine with that. The relentless hands, the pressure, the heat of attack . . . those were designed to stall the other Boilermakers. And so it came to pass, Purdue had 16 turnovers and was 5-for-26 from the 3-point line. The Boilermakers were scrambling early against the pressure.
“They looked a little tired in the first half and our guys saw that, and I think it gave us a little confidence,” Anderson said. “Our style is hard to play against. I’m sure the Big Ten teams don’t press as much. Our quickness, our speed — my dad was a big boxing fan. Style makes fights. And our style, I thought, hurt them a little bit.”
Especially Purdue’s freshman backcourt of Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer, who combined for six baskets, and 10 turnovers. “I think it’s hard for freshmen to play against two fifth-year seniors who know how to play and win,” Anderson said.
He meant Roberts and Singleton, who like their coach was a St. Thomas Aquinas Spartan last March. As was Sean Moore, who threw 19 points at Purdue. “We all came together to make this happen,” Moore said.
In the name of John Wooden — alum — what just happened?
When you step back, it is unfathomable. That the program with the most titles in the Big Ten has lost to a No. 13 seed, a No. 15 seed and a No. 16 seed the past three years. The Boilermakers can beat Illinois and Michigan State and Iowa in the winter, but not North Texas and Saint Peter’s and Fairleigh Dickinson in March.
Virginia has been like that, too, only with a national championship in the cart as well. Purdue was trying to get back to the Final Four for the first time in 43 years. That has been a heavy load to bear and now it must feel like a couple of oil tankers.
It is unexplainable that a juggernaut with a 7-4 center that was once 22-1 would falter before the onslaught of a 20-15 team with nobody on the floor taller than 6-6.
It is inexplicable what the state of New Jersey has done to Purdue basketball.
Rutgers plays its games in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights knocked the Boilermakers out of No. 1 last year and beat them again in Mackey Arena this season.
Saint Peter’s is in Jersey City.
Fairleigh Dickinson is in Teaneck. This, the unkindest cut of all.
Purdue has met its worst enemy, and it is the Garden State.
All the Boilermakers could see Friday night was this one giant chance that went so horribly wrong.
“There’s nothing you can say that’s going to change it right?” Painter said. “I mean, it stinks. They outplayed us, they outcoached us. I think that’s the one thing as a coach that you always face . . . you’ll get ridiculed, you’ll get shamed, you’ll get whatever. It’s basketball. You’ve got to get better.
“We’re not going to give into it, I know that. Unless they move me."
How to sum up the brilliant high and devastating low of one Friday night in Columbus? We can go back to the guard sitting in the winning locker room.
“I don’t think they panicked. I think we just wanted it more,” Roberts said. “That’s what coach put an emphasis on at every media timeout. Want it, want it, want it.
"It’s March. Everybody’s record is clean. You can’t play by record, you have to go out there and play. The hardest team is going to come out with a win.”
Nobody in college basketball understood that better Friday night than the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights. Except for maybe the Purdue Boilermakers.