The Rattlers used their speed and energy to blow out the larger and lethargic Lehigh University 75-57 in the play-in game of the St. Louis region to become the first basketball team in FAMU history to win a game in the NCAA tournament.
“This is a monumental day for Florida A&M,” head coach Mike Gillespie Sr. told ESPN. “One more time for all the people who say we don’t belong here: I’m not going to apologize. We earned our way here.”
FAMU center Michael Harper lit up the nylon, scoring seven of the Rattlers first nine points on three free throws and two mid-range jumpers helping FAMU to an early 9-5 lead. The transfer from UNC Asheville finished the game with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
The Mountain Hawks quickly struck back with a quick 5-0 spurt to take a 10-9 lead with 13:07 left in the 1st half. That would be the only lead that Lehigh possessed in the first half as FAMU used their quickness to negate the obvious disadvantage in size and bulk to Lehigh and take a 39-33 lead into the half.
On the first possession of the half for FAMU, Terrence Woods drove the baseline and dished a pass to Harper for an easy dunk to put the Rattlers ahead 41-33.
But the Rattlers continued to allow the Mountain Hawks to remain in the game as Lehigh forward Kevin Tempest hit a 3-pointer to narrow FAMU’s lead to six with 14:22 left in the game at 48-42. That was the closest the Mountain Hawks would get to the Rattlers.
After the 3-pointer by Lehigh, the Rattlers held the Mountain Hawks without a field goal for the next six and half minutes, going on an 11-1 run to making the score 59-43.
Two 3-pointers by Woods pushed the lead to 17, 66-49, and put the game in the bag for the Rattlers with 4:31 remaining.
“We knew we could get back in it if we played some defense, but Woods started making 3s,” Austen Rowland, the Patriot League’s player of the year, said to ESPN. “We had hands in his face, but he kept making shots.”
With the win, the Rattlers will take on the top-seeded Wildcats of the University of Kentucky Friday at 7:10 pm in Columbus, Ohio where FAMU will be the obvious underdogs.
“As for Kentucky, they put their shoes on just like we do,” Woods told ESPN. “I feel we have a chance, just like we did against Lehigh.”
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