COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fairleigh Dickinson brought down a giant.
Pulling off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA men’s basketball tournament history, the underdog Knights stunned top-seeded Purdue 63-58 on Friday night, becoming the second No. 16 seed to win a game in March Madness.
The shortest team in the tourney, the Knights (21-15) showed no fear in swarming 7-foot-4 All-America center Zach Edey from the start and simply outplayed the Big Ten champion Boilermakers (29-6).
“If we played them 100 times, they’d probably beat us 99 times,” FDU coach Tobin Anderson said. “Play them 100 times, we have one win. But tonight’s the one we had to be unique, we had to be unorthodox. We had to make it tough on them, just be different.”
Sean Moore scored 19 points to lead FDU and a relentless defensive charge — the Knights pressed most of the game — by a team without a player on its roster taller than 6-6 but that now that now has everyone’s attention.
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.
After the final horn, FDU’s players mobbed each other on the floor of Nationwide Arena, where the fans from Memphis and Florida Atlantic who were waiting for the day’s final game joined forces in cheering on the Knights in the final, frantic minutes.
The Knights will meet FAU, a 66-65 winner over Memphis, 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.
“Man, I can’t even explain it,” Moore said. “I’m still in shock right now. I can’t believe it. It’s crazy. But it feels amazing.”
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 5½ 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 No. 3 seed when it lost to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s, another small New Jersey school, in the Sweet 16 last year.
“Our job was just to come into the game and throw a punch,” said FDU’s Demetre Roberts, 20 inches shorter than Edey. “We knew they would throw multiple punches. Just throw a punch back. We knew what type of game this was.”
Edey finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds in what may have been his final college game, but the Knights were masterful against him in the second half. Edey didn’t attempt a shot in the final nine minutes, and anytime he touched the ball there were Knights all around him.
“A lot of times they would have one dude guarding from behind and one dude basically sitting in my lap,” said the junior center and possible NBA lottery pick. “They were full fronting the entire game. Made it very hard to get catches. Credit to them, they had a great game plan coming in. And they executed it very well.”
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 with a camera in the locker room.
Some of Purdue’s players said they felt disrespected by the comments, which turned out to be prophetic.
“It was the right message, wrong audience,” said Anderson, in his first season at FDU. “I would have said that with no camera in there. I didn’t mean to get Purdue upset. That was not the idea at all. But that’s got to be the message. We’re trying to win the next game. We just can’t be happy to be here.
“And the guys gotta believe.”
Just being in the tourney was quite an accomplishment for FDU, which went 4-22 a year ago.
And now the Knights are giant slayers.