Fairleigh Dickinson, Barely in the N.C.A.A. Tournament, Topples Purdue in a Shocker

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fairleigh Dickinson, a No. 16 seed in the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament, on Friday night outclassed Purdue, a mighty No. 1 seed that boasted arguably the top player in college basketball, delivering the most shocking upset in the sport in half a decade.

“I can’t even explain it. I’m shocked right now,” Sean Moore, a junior forward who led Fairleigh Dickinson with 19 points, said after the game went final, his team on top, 63-58. “I can’t believe it.”

The win was just the second time a men’s No. 16 seed had defeated a No. 1 in the single-elimination tournament, after the University of Maryland, Baltimore County beat Virginia in 2018 in a 20-point rout. On the women’s side, No. 16 seed Harvard beat No. 1 Stanford in the 1998 tournament.

F.D.U., located in Teaneck, N.J., just 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 on Wednesday in a play-in game just for the right to play Purdue, the Big Ten champion led by the 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, the most dominant player in men’s college basketball.

Purdue struggled in virtually every aspect of the game. It shot under 20 percent from 3-point range and frequently let F.D.U.’s rotation of small guards slide around screens for layups and easy jump shots.

“It stings,” Matt Painter, Purdue’s longtime coach, said after the game. F.D.U. “played better than we did,” he added. “They coached better than we did.”

“They were fabulous,” Painter said.

F.D.U. is one of the most unlikely successes in college basketball. It is the shortest team in Division I — 363 out of 363 teams — averaging just 6-foot-1. Almost every Purdue player had a substantial height advantage, including Edey, who regularly guarded a player a full foot shorter.

F.D.U. finished 4-22 last season and was picked to finish sixth in its conference’s preseason coaches poll. It rebounded with 20 wins this season. The Knights claimed the automatic bid of the Northwest Conference, but they did not actually win their conference tournament. They fell in the final to Merrimack, which is transitioning from Division II and is not eligible for the N.C.A.A. tournament.

Tobin Anderson, F.D.U.’s first-year coach, had warned in a postgame celebration after its Wednesday victory that his team could match up with Purdue, confidence that rankled Purdue ahead of the matchup. “The more I see Purdue, the more I think we can beat them,” Anderson said.

He acknowledged after Friday’s game that he felt bad about the perceived slight, praising Purdue’s talent. But his players suggested that their coach was validated. “We showed why we belong here,” Demetre Roberts, a 5-foot-8 guard who baffled Purdue as he raced around its taller guards on his way to 12 key points.

“We all have a chip on our shoulder,” Anderson said.

Purdue’s fans greatly outnumbered F.D.U.’s supporters in Nationwide Arena in downtown Columbus, where the N.H.L.’s Blue Jackets play. But as the game advanced, with F.D.U. keeping it close, chants of “F.D.U.” began to ring out both from its modest contingent of fans and from partisans of Memphis and Florida Atlantic, teams that were set to play on the same court later Friday night.

The game appeared like it might turn around for Purdue in the first 10 minutes, when it leaned heavily on Edey, its dominant center and the likely national player of the year, who spent a significant part of the game swatting the ball out toward his teammates like a volleyball player.

Anderson described the recipe for neutralizing Edey: stifling his teammates. Edey, Anderson pointed out, performs similarly well in Purdue’s wins and losses. The difference, he said, was restraining the talented group of guards around Edey as they shot from deep when Edey was double- or triple-teamed. When Edey’s supporting cast struggles, the team struggles, Anderson said.

Edey made several emphatic dunks in the second half as he worked to take control of the game, roaring after the throwdowns. The Boilermakers gained a 6-point lead. The nervous looks that Purdue coaches shot at one another began to ease. But F.D.U. quickly scored 8 unanswered points to take back control. The rest of the game was a nervous back-and-forth.

This was the third year in a row that Purdue had lost to a double-digit seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament, a sign that Friday’s defeat was not entirely a fluke. But its loss to F.D.U. amounted to a major challenge to Purdue’s habit of prioritizing unheralded recruits, preferring them over transfers and players with greater professional ambitions.

Billy Witz contributed reporting.

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