COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fairleigh Dickinson's 16th seed, the shortest team in men's college basketball, defeated top seed Purdue and 7-foot-4 magisterial big Zach Edey on Friday, delivering a shock NCAA tournament upset that epitomizes the knowledge of the underdog. March Madness.
The game sparked scenes of euphoria and idiocy at the Nationwide Arena, the NHL home of the Blue Jackets, where thousands of Purdue fans from the Indiana border flocked to expect their Big Ten championship-winning team to begin its long journey to the Final Four.
Instead, when the final bell rang, Fairleigh Dickinson's players ran onto center field, screaming wildly and forming a crowd in front of their fans, who used cell phone cameras to record the most famous win in school athletic history. Coach and team employees hugging each other. Most of the audience remained standing, gawking at the sight.
“I can't even explain it. I'm in shock now,” said Sean Moore, the junior forward who led Fairleigh Dickinson with 19 points, saying after the final his team was ahead, 63-58. “I don't believe it.”
The victory was the second time the No. 16 boys beat No. 1 in single-elimination tournaments, after the University of Maryland, Baltimore County beat Virginia in 2018 in a 20-point loss. On the women's side, the 16th seed Harvard defeated 1st Stanford in the 1998 tournament.
FDU, located in Teaneck, NJ, just across the Hudson River from Upper Manhattan, had never advanced to the second round of a tournament before Friday. It must beat Texas Southern on Wednesday in a play-in game only for the right to play Purdue, who just won the Big Ten tournament on Sunday.
“If we played them 100 times, they probably beat us 99 times,” Tobin Anderson, FDU first-year coach, said after the game. His team – short, young and 23-point underdogs – “had to be unique,” he says. “We have to be unorthodox.”
Purdue struggled in almost every aspect of the game. Usually sharp from range, his shot was under 20 percent from the 3-point line. And while that outpaced his shorter opponent, FDU grabbed 11 critical offensive rebounds, slowing Purdue's momentum as it tried to regain control.
Purdue often allows the rotation of the FDU's small guards, who enter and exit games like a hockey team, sliding around the screen for easy basket viewing. Still, FDU, who led most games, was somewhat inconsistent, shooting less than 40 percent.
But his defense, which included regular full-court press and Edey's double teamwork, confused Purdue's intricately drafted offense, which ran more than 250 games.
“A lot of times they have one guy watching from behind and one guy basically sitting on my lap,” said Edey, likely national player of the year, after the match, frustrated. He finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, a normally commanding stat line that felt insignificant on Friday night.
“It stung,” said Matt Painter, Purdue coach since 2005. FDU “played better than us,” he added. “They train better than us.”
“They are amazing,” said Painter.
This is the third year in a row Purdue has lost to a double-digit seed in the NCAA tournament, a sign that Friday's loss may not have been entirely fluke. But his loss to FDU was the most serious failure of a system that prioritizes obscure local recruits without the NBA hype of top-ranked players attracted to the strengths of other college basketballs. Focused on player development for several years, Purdue has largely resisted the transfer portals other top programs have eagerly traded to deepen their rosters.
The idea has become a source of pride for Painter, who has reached the last 16 six times but has never advanced to the Final Four. His group this season, he said on Friday, had been “doing things the right way.”
After nearly two months of being ranked as the nation's top team this season, the second year in a row it has accomplished the feat, Purdue players believe their team is well positioned to win the national championship. Mason Gillis, the team's starting forward, said on Thursday as much as his team's preparation for FDU “We have the pieces,” he said confidently.
FDU is one of the most unlikely successes in college basketball. It is the shortest team in Division I—363 of 363 teams—with an average of just 6-foot-1. Nearly every Purdue player has a substantial height advantage, including Edey, who regularly guards the shorter players by a full foot.
FDU finished 4-22 last season and were voted to finish sixth in the conference preseason coaches poll. It recovered with 20 wins this season. The Knights claimed an automatic Northeast Conference bid, but they didn't actually win their conference tournament. They lost in the finals to Merrimack, who was transitioning from Division II and did not qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Anderson, the FDU coach, had warned in post-match celebrations after his win on Wednesday that his team could match Purdue, a confidence that has Purdue nervous ahead of the fight. “The more I see Purdue, the more I think we can beat them,” Anderson said in the team locker room after Wednesday's game.
He said on Friday that he felt bad for being taken for granted. But his players are suggesting that their coach be validated. “We showed why we deserve to be here,” Demetre Roberts, a 5-foot-8 guard who raced around taller Purdue guards on his way to 12 key points.
“We all have a chip on our shoulders,” said Anderson.
A year ago, Anderson was the head coach of St. Louis. Thomas Aquinas, Division II school in Sparkill, New York, where he coached Moore, a Columbus native who joined him at Fairleigh Dickinson. Anderson is a “grinder,” Painter said admiringly after Friday's disappointment.
Purdue fans far outnumbered the FDU crowd, filling the arena with noise as its mascot, Purdue Pete, paraded around the pitch to excite the school's many pockets of followers. But as play continued, with FDU staying close, chants of “FDU” began to be heard from both the modest contingent of fans and from the partisans of Memphis and Florida Atlantic, the teams that would play on the same court later Friday night. .
Purdue looked to have reclaimed the game within the first 10 minutes of the second half, when it relied heavily on Edey, the likely national player of the year, who often hit his team-mates like a volleyball player.
Anderson explains the recipe for neutralizing Edey: suffocating his teammates. Edey, said Anderson, performed equally well in Purdue's wins and losses. The difference, he says, is keeping the talented group around Edey as they shoot from deep or cutting into the basket when Edey works with two or three teams. When Edey's supporting cast struggles, his team struggles, says Anderson.
Edey made some decisive dunks in the second half as he worked to control the game, roaring after the throw. The Boilermakers have a 6-point lead that could be insurmountable. The nervousness that was apparent as Purdue coaches shot each other appeared to be subsiding.
But FDU, brave and tireless, scored 8 unanswered points to regain control. The rest of the game was a nervous back and forth, the score in one possession until Moore scored a layup with one minute and 26 seconds remaining, effectively sealing his team's lead.
Painter said his team failed to change course due to poor shooting and struggled to escape the FDU defensive trap. “When people press you like that, you have to make a layup,” he said. “You have to get a shot wide open.”
He appears to have absorbed the shockwaves sent by Purdue's loss through the tournament – over 96 percent of fans have voted for Purdue to win this game in an ESPN bracket contest, and no perfect man brackets left on site after Friday night, partly, of course, due to other disruptions surrounding the tournament.
“You will be ridiculed. You will be humiliated,” said Painter. “It's basketball.”
Purdue had a chance to tie the game with less than 10 seconds remaining. But FDU put up its ferocious last defense, trapping Fletcher Loyer, a sharp-shooting baby-faced new guard, in the corner. Loyer attempted a desperate shot, failing miserably, as Edey watched from the low post.
Loyer sat alone in his locker after the game, staring ahead, confused. It was the kind of shot he had been dreaming of, he said.
Billy Witz contributed reporting.