The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights are the first victors in the 2019 NCAA men's basketball tournament, and they earned the win in dramatic fashion.
After falling behind by as many as 13 points in the second half, Fairleigh Dickinson defeated the Prairie View A&M Panthers 82-76 on Tuesday in a showdown of No. 16 seeds in the West Region in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio. The Knights' reward is a date with the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs on Thursday.
The combination of Darnell Edge (33 points on 7-of-9 shooting from deep) and Jahlil Jenkins (22 points, six assists and four rebounds) spearheaded the comeback that featured a 12-0 run late in the second half.
Gary Blackston (27 points and six rebounds) and Devonte Patterson (17 points and eight boards) led the way for the Panthers, but they were unable to overcome the head-turning effort from the Knights' guards.
Fairleigh Dickinson Must Ride Backcourt Duo to Have Prayer vs. Gonzaga
Prairie View couldn't have written a better start to Tuesday's game.
It wasted little time creating havoc with its tempo, forcing 17 turnovers and parlaying many of those mistakes into quick breaks in the other direction. It pressed up on Fairleigh Dickinson's ball-handlers, ran shooters off the three-point line and trapped players coming around screens with a swarming style.
It was no surprise the Panthers played in such a fashion considering they are the No. 34 team in the country in Ken Pomeroy's pace-adjusted tempo rankings compared to a Knights squad that is 214th. Only North Carolina, Buffalo, Duke and Belmont play at a quicker pace in the tournament, and it appeared as if the Knights would be out of their comfort zone in comeback mode.
Edge and Jenkins missed the memo.
Many of the Knights' early issues stemmed from other players having the ball in their hands too much against that uptempo style of play. Edge and Jenkins had only two turnovers each, and they started to lead the comeback when they demanded the ball and went into takeover mode.
Jenkins used his quickness to dart through the pressure and force help defense to collapse, which opened up Edge for his three-pointers throughout the second half. When defenders didn't shade Jenkins' direction, he finished at the rim and further cut into the lead.
The sophomore demonstrated a senior-like grasp on the game, controlling the tempo down the stretch and understanding when to reset the offense and when to attack. That Edge—the senior leader on the team—was there to calmly drill the open looks his teammate was creating made the comeback a thing of basketball beauty.
There was a lesson to be learned in the matchup with Prairie View: don't go anywhere else when the game's outcome is in doubt in this pressure-packed tournament.
Edge and Jenkins were the only Knights players to score more than 10 points and the only ones who looked comfortable with the ball in their hands for extended stretches. It was no accident they started coming back when they looked for their shots, and it will be even more important against mighty Gonzaga for the two leaders to maximize their looks.
If they want a blueprint to attacking the Bulldogs as a tandem, they should look no further than North Carolina's 103-90 victory over the West Region's No. 1 seed. Gonzaga struggled to keep up with Coby White slashing through the lane—much like Jenkins did Tuesday—and allowed the freshman to finish with 15 points and six assists.
When the defense started focusing on White, Cameron Johnson took over and hit six three-pointers en route to his 25 points. Edge can play that role.
Fairleigh Dickinson isn't North Carolina, and the Knights will likely fall well short of challenging the Bulldogs in Thursday's matchup. But the Knights at least know a dynamic duo can take over and defeat the Bulldogs if they play at their best.
Fairleigh Dickinson will play Gonzaga on Thursday with the chance to become the second No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 in Big Dance history after UMBC did so against Virginia last year.
The Bulldogs boast the No. 1 offense in the country in Pomeroy's rankings, so it will take a Herculean effort for history to repeat itself.