“I wanted our guys to believe,” said Anderson, who noted he didn’t realize his postgame message Wednesday would appear on the national broadcast after Fairleigh Dickinson’s play-in win. “We [couldn’t] just be happy to be here.”
As it turned out, the Knights aren’t going anywhere just yet.
Despite owning the shortest roster in Division I men’s basketball — with an average height of 6-foot-1 — Fairleigh Dickinson relentlessly attacked the rim, even with Zach Edey, Purdue’s 7-foot-4, All-American center, roaming inside.
Edey scored 21 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked three shots, but the Knights countered with 24 points in the paint on the other end (to Purdue’s 26).
In different ways throughout the night, Fairleigh Dickinson turned its apparent size disadvantage into a strength. The speedy Knights swarmed Edey and pressured Purdue’s guards. They forced the Boilermakers into 16 turnovers, turning those into 15 points the other way.
The last two of those proved to be the most critical.
With 1:42 to go and Fairleigh Dickinson clinging to a one-possession lead, Knights forward Sean Moore swiped the ball away from Edey. Off the turnover, Moore got the ball back for a driving layup, putting the Knights up 58-53.
“You could tell he was exhausted,” Moore said of Edey in the second half. “We just kept attacking him, running him in transition. … There aren’t many teams that can hang with our speed and transition and how we move.”
On the next possession, Moore nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the key, which gave him a career-high 19 points in his hometown of Columbus. After both baskets, chants of “F-D-U” began pouring down from the Nationwide Arena stands, as even fans of the other teams in Columbus relished in witnessing the upset.
The Boilermakers had one last chance to tie the score in the closing seconds. But Moore blocked Braden Smith‘s layup attempt out of bounds. And off the inbounds play, a Fletcher Loyer 3-point attempt from the corner missed everything before falling into the arms of the shortest player on the court, 5-foot-8 Demetre Roberts, who sealed the victory with two free throws and another block at the other end.
“We showed why we belonged here,” said Roberts, who scored 12 points to go along with four assists.
Roberts was one of the players Anderson brought with him from his previous stop, Division II St. Thomas Aquinas College. Starting guard Grant Singleton, who had five assists and three steals Friday, is another St. Thomas Aquinas transfer.
Together, they made three Sweet 16 appearances in the Division II NCAA tournament and had a 14-5 postseason record entering Friday. Anderson said that experience was a big key for Fairleigh Dickinson, especially against Purdue’s freshman backcourt duo of Loyer and Smith, who combined to commit 10 turnovers.
“It’s hard for freshmen to play against two fifth-year seniors,” Anderson said. “[Their] two freshman guards are going to be terrific. But I think having two fifth-year seniors … we had the advantage there.”
Fairleigh Dickinson closed as a 23.5-point underdog, making it the largest upset by point spread since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Knights were 16-1 to win Friday’s game straight-up at Caesars Sportsbook and even bigger long shots at other sportsbooks. Purdue was 10-1 to win the entire tournament.
“We had some decision-making in there that just wasn’t very good,” Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said. “And just kind of allowed them to linger and hang in the game.”
Excluding First Four games, Purdue became the first team to lose consecutive NCAA tournament games against 15-seeds or worse; the Boilermakers lost to 15-seed Saint Peter’s in last year’s Sweet 16. Purdue now has six losses against double-digit seeds in the round of 64, the most among Big Ten teams.
“I wanted our guys to believe. We [couldn’t] just be happy to be here.”
Fairleigh Dickinson coach Tobin Anderson
“I’m just still in shock right now,” Moore said almost 30 minutes after the win, still drenched in water from the postgame celebration in the locker room. “With a moment like this, not knowing you’d be here and then you’re here. … Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel normal again.”
In the past three days, Fairleigh Dickinson has won half as many games as it did all of last season, when it finished 4-22.
The Knights didn’t even win their conference tournament. Merrimack defeated Fairleigh Dickinson 67-66 in the Northeast Conference championship game but was ineligible for the NCAA tournament as it continues the process of reclassifying from Division II. Thus, the conference’s automatic bid went to the Knights.
Fairleigh Dickinson coasted in the play-in game Wednesday, dominating Texas Southern 84-61, and two days later, the Knights made history.
Anderson, who became the first coach in his first season at any school in the past 30 years to win in the first round of the tournament as a 15- or 16-seed, said his team was excited to prepare to keep its run alive. Fairleigh Dickinson next plays Sunday against Florida Atlantic, a 66-65 winner over Memphis.
But first, Anderson admitted, the Knights had laundry to do. They only packed so much for the trip.
“I had belief,” Anderson said, “but I’m not sure I had that much belief.”
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.