COLUMBUS, Ohio – Fairleigh Dickinson, the No. 16 seed in men’s college basketball, delivered a stunning NCAA Tournament upset over top-ranked Purdue and its 7-foot-4 big man Zach Eddy on Friday. March Madness is the underdog.
The game brought excitement and frenzy to Nationwide Arena, the NHL home of the Blue Jackets, where thousands of Purdue fans from across the border in Indiana flocked to watch their Big Ten championship-winning team begin a long march to the Final Four.
Instead, when the final buzzer sounded, Fairleigh Dickinson players ran to midcourt, shouted wildly and formed a scrum in front of their fans, using cell phone cameras to record the most famous victory in the school’s athletic history. The team’s coaches and staff jumped into each other’s arms. Most of the crowd stood there and watched.
“I can’t even explain it. I’m in shock right now,” junior forward Sean Moore, who led Fairleigh Dickinson with 19 points, said after the game’s final, with his team on top 63-58. “I couldn’t believe it.”
It was just the second time a No. 16 seed has defeated a No. 1 men’s single-elimination tournament since the University of Maryland Baltimore County beat Virginia by 20 points in 2018. On the women’s side, 16th-ranked Harvard defeated No. 1 Stanford in the 1998 tournament.
FDU, located in Teaneck, NJ, across the Hudson River from upper Manhattan, had never advanced to the second round of the tournament before Friday. It had to defeat Texas Southern in a play-in game on Wednesday for the right to play Purdue, the winner of Sunday’s Big Ten tournament.
“If we had played them 100 times, they could have beaten us 99 times,” FDU’s first-year coach Tobin Anderson said after the game. His team — short, young and a 23-point underdog — “has to be unique,” he said. “We have to be unconventional.”
Purdue struggled in every facet of the game. Generally sharp from long range, shot under 20 percent from the 3-point line. As it outscored its narrow opponent, FDU grabbed 11 key offensive rebounds that slowed Purdue as it tried to regain control.
Purdue often allowed FDU’s rotation of small guards, who entered and exited plays like a hockey team, sliding around screens to get easy looks at the basket. However, FDU, which led most of the game, was a bit inconsistent, shooting less than 40 percent.
But its defense ran more than 250 plays against Purdue’s elaborately designed offense, including routine full-court presses and double teams from Eadie.
“A lot of times they have a guy guarding from behind and a guy basically sitting on my lap,” Edey, the national player of the year, said with frustration after the game. He finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, a normally commanding stat line that felt meaningless Friday night.
“It stings,” said Matt Painter, Purdue’s coach since 2005. FDU “played better than we did,” he said. “They coached better than we did.”
“They are wonderful,” said the painter.
It’s the third year in a row that Purdue has lost by double digits in the NCAA Tournament, a sign that Friday’s loss may not have been complete. But its loss to FDU amounts to the worst defeat for an organization that prioritizes local, unheralded recruits without the NBA hype of top-ranked players drawn to other college basketball powers. Purdue, which has focused on developing players for years, has largely rejected the transfer portal that other top programs have traded with eagerness to deepen their rosters.
That idea was a stubborn point of pride for Painter, who has reached the round of 16 six times but never advanced to the final four. His team “did things the right way” this season, he said Friday.
After nearly two months of being ranked as the nation’s top team this season, a feat it accomplished for the second year in a row, Purdue’s players believed their team was positioned to win the national championship. Mason Gillis, a starting forward for the team, said Thursday as much as his team could prepare for FDU “We have the pieces,” he said confidently.
FDU has one of the most unlikely wins in college basketball. It’s the shortest team in Division I — 363 out of 363 teams — averaging just 6-foot-1. Almost every Purdue player gained significant height, including Eddy, a guard who was a full foot shorter.
FDU finished 4-22 last season and was ranked sixth in its conference’s preseason coaches poll. Rebounded with 20 wins this season. The Knights claimed the Northeast Conference’s automatic bid, but they didn’t actually win their conference tournament. They fell in the finals to Merrimack, which is transitioning from Division II and did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Anderson, FDU’s coach, warned that his team could match Purdue in a postgame celebration after Wednesday’s win, a belief that ranked Purdue ahead of the competition. “The more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them,” Anderson said in the team’s locker room after Wednesday’s game.
He said Friday that he felt bad about the perceived slight. But his players suggested their coach was checked. “We showed why we’re here,” said 5-foot-8 guard Demetrius Roberts, who ran around Purdue’s taller guards en route to 12 key points.
“We all have a chip on our shoulder,” Anderson said.
A year ago, Anderson was the head coach at St. Thomas Aquinas, a Division II school in Sparkle, New York, where he coached Moore, a Columbus native who joined him at Fairleigh Dickinson. Painter praised Andersen as a “grinder” after Friday’s upset.
Purdue’s fans outnumbered FDU’s supporters, filling the arena with noise as its iconic Purdue Pete marched around the court to inspire the school’s many followers. But as the game progressed, FDU kept it close, and chants of “FDU” began to ring out from its moderate fans and partisans of Memphis and Florida Atlantic. .
Purdue regained control of the game in the first 10 minutes of the second half, which hinged heavily on Eddy, the national player of the year, who often swatted balls toward his teammates for grabs like a volleyball player.
Anderson described the recipe for neutralizing Eddie: stifling his teammates. Eddy, Anderson pointed out, has performed similarly well in Purdue’s wins and losses. The difference is having a group of talented players around ED to control them from deep or when ED is double- or triple-teamed to the hoop. When Eddy’s supporting cast struggles, his team struggles, Anderson said.
Eddie made several emphatic dunks in the second half as he worked to take control of the game, roaring after layups. The Boilermakers took a 6-point lead that was seemingly insurmountable. The nervous looks Purdue coaches shot each other seemed easy.
But FDU, brave and relentless, scored 8 unanswered points to take back control. The rest of the game was a tense back-and-forth until Moore hit a layup with one minute and 26 seconds left, effectively sealing his team’s lead.
Painter said his team was poorly shot and struggled to break free from FDU’s defensive traps, unable to convert itself. “When people pressure you like that, you’ve got to get layups,” he said. “You have to get wide-open shots.”
He seems to have absorbed the shock waves that Purdue’s loss sent through the contest — more than 96 percent of fans picked Purdue to win the game in the ESPN bracket, and Zero correct men’s brackets were left On site after Friday night, of course, due to other upsets surrounding the match.
“You’re going to be made fun of. You’re going to be embarrassed,” Painter said. “It’s basketball.”
Purdue had a chance to tie the game with 10 seconds left. But FDU mounted the final stand of its ferocious defense, trapping Fletcher Loyer, a sharp-shooting baby-faced freshman guard in the corner. Lower attempted a desperate shot, missing badly, and Eddy watched from the low post.
Lower sat alone at his locker after the game, staring ahead, stunned. It was the kind of shot he had dreamed of, he said.
Billy Witts contributed reporting.