The 16th-seeded Knights were heavy underdogs to Purdue. But in 40 minutes on the court, none of that mattered.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson, the shortest team in men’s college basketball, took down top-seeded Purdue and its magisterial 7-foot-4 big man Zach Edey on Friday, delivering a shocking N.C.A.A. tournament upset that epitomized the lore of the March Madness underdog.
The game set off scenes of euphoria and stupor in Nationwide Arena, the N.H.L. home of the Blue Jackets, where thousands of Purdue fans from bordering Indiana had crowded in expecting their Big Ten championship-winning team to begin a long march toward the Final Four.
Instead, when the final buzzer went off, Fairleigh Dickinson players raced to midcourt, yelling wildly and forming a scrum in front of their fans, who wielded cellphone cameras to record the most prominent win in the school’s athletic history. Coaches and employees of the team leaped into each other’s arms. Much of the crowd remained standing, gawking at the scene.
Highlights: F.D.U. Shocks Purdue
Highlights: F.D.U. Shocks Purdue
“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. The Knights had to defeat Texas Southern on Wednesday in a play-in game just for the right to play Purdue, which had just won the Big Ten tournament on Sunday.
“If we played them 100 times, they’d probably beat us 99 times,” Tobin Anderson, F.D.U.’s first-year coach, said after the game. His team — short, young and a 23-point underdog — “had to be unique,” he said. “We had to be unorthodox.”
Purdue struggled in virtually every aspect of the game. Normally sharp from long range, the Boilermakers shot under 20 percent from the 3-point line. And while they outrebounded their shorter opponent, F.D.U. grabbed 11 critical offensive rebounds, slowing Purdue’s momentum as it tried to take back control.
Purdue frequently let F.D.U.’s rotation of small guards, who entered and exited the game like a hockey team, slide around screens for easy looks at the basket. Still, F.D.U., which led for the majority of the game, was inconsistent, shooting less than 40 percent.
But its defense, including regular full-court presses and double-teaming of Edey, flummoxed Purdue’s elaborately designed offense, which runs more than 250 plays.
“A lot of times they would have one dude guarding from behind and one dude basically sitting in my lap,” Edey, the likely national player of the year, said after the game, frustrated. He finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, a typically commanding stat line that felt meaningless on Friday night.
“It stings,” said Matt Painter, Purdue’s coach since 2005. “They played better than we did,” he added. “They coached better than we did.”
“They were fabulous,” Painter said.
This was the third year in a row that Purdue lost to a double-digit seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament, a sign that Friday’s defeat may not have been entirely a fluke. But its loss to F.D.U. amounted to the most serious failure yet of a system that prioritizes local, unheralded recruits without the N.B.A. hype of top-ranked players drawn to other college basketball powers. Focused on developing players over several years, Purdue has mostly rejected the transfer portal that other top programs have traded on to deepen their rosters.
That idea has been stubborn point of pride for Painter, who has made it to the round of 16 six times but has never advanced to the Final Four. His group this season, he said on Friday, had “done things the right way.”
After seven total weeks ranked as the nation’s top team this season, the second year in a row the program had reached that top spot, Purdue’s players believed they were positioned to win the national championship. Mason Gillis, a starting forward, said as much on Thursday as his team prepared for F.D.U. “We have the pieces,” he said confidently.
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 Northeast 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.
Anderson, F.D.U.’s 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 that I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them,” Anderson said in the team’s locker room after its Wednesday game.
He said on Friday that he felt bad about the perceived slight. But his players suggested that their coach was validated. “We showed why we belong here,” Demetre Roberts, a 5-foot-8 guard who raced around Purdue’s taller guards on his way to 12 key points.
“We all have a chip on our shoulder,” Anderson said.
Just a year ago, Anderson was the head coach of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Division II school in Sparkill, N.Y., where he coached Moore. Anderson was a “grinder,” Painter said admiringly after Friday’s upset.
Purdue’s fans greatly outnumbered F.D.U.’s supporters, filling the arena with noise as its mascot, Purdue Pete, paraded around the court to rouse the many pockets of the school’s followers. But as the game advanced, with F.D.U. keeping it close, chants of “F.D.U.” began to ring out both from the Knights’ 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.
Purdue appeared to reclaim the game in the first 10 minutes of the second half, when it leaned heavily on Edey, who frequently swatted up-for-grabs balls 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 players around Edey as they shot from deep or cut to the hoop when Edey was double- or triple-teamed. When Edey’s supporting cast struggles, his 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 that could have been insurmountable. The apprehensive looks that Purdue coaches had shot one another appeared to ease.
But F.D.U., plucky and relentless, scored 8 unanswered points to take back control. The rest of the game was a nervous back-and-forth, the score mostly within a single possession. Fletcher Loyer, a sharp-shooting freshman guard for Purdue, hit two critical 3-point shots to keep it close. Moore answered with his own 3-pointer with just over a minute left, effectively sealing his team’s lead.
Painter said his team failed to reorient itself as it shot poorly and struggled to break free from F.D.U.’s defensive traps. “When people press you like that, you’ve got to go get layups,” he said. “You gotta get wide-open shots.”
He seemed to have absorbed the shock waves Purdue’s loss had sent through the tournament: More than 96 percent of fans had picked Purdue to win this game in ESPN bracket contests, and zero perfect men’s brackets were left on the site after Friday night.
“You’ll get ridiculed. You’ll get shamed,” Painter said. “It’s basketball.”
Purdue had an opportunity to tie the game with less than 10 seconds left. But F.D.U. mounted a final stand of its ferocious defense, trapping Loyer, who attempted a desperate shot, missing badly as Edey watched from the low post.
Loyer sat alone at his locker after the game, staring ahead, dazed. It was the kind of shot he had dreamed of making, he said.
Billy Witz contributed reporting.