Oller: Reynoldsburg's Sean Moore sparks Fairleigh Dickinson to NCAA upset of No. 1 Purdue
The crowd began tilting Sean Moore’s way even before tip-off, when dozens of family and friends gathered in the southeast corner of Nationwide Arena to watch the Fairleigh Dickinson guard go through warmups.
By halftime, under the weight of what was happening, Moore’s fan base had grown into the thousands.
By game’s end, when the Knights became only the second No. 16 seed in NCAA Tournament history to defeat a No. 1, stunning Purdue 63-58 Friday night, the junior from Reynoldsburg was trending in the hundreds of thousands, with millions more on the way.
That’s what happens when a few flicks of the wrist make you one of the most popular players in college basketball.
Hyperbole? No way. March Madness is the maestro of celebrity. Always has been. Always will be. Take any ordinary Joe, or Sean, add a feel-good story, then have him go out and slay the giant. Voila. Strangers become acquaintances. Acquaintances become friends. Friends act like family. Family, well, they knew their guy could do this all along.
Moore’s mother, Shanika Tyler, knew it.
“Never a doubt,” she said as family pressed in around her, screams nearly drowning out her words. “Sean is a team player, not a selfish player. He always plays to win and is very strategic, so I know he was motivated to break history.”
Moore’s father, Markey Moore, knew it.
“Back when he was in the ninth grade,” the proud papa said.
And Steven Deshong knew it. Moore’s grandfather, who takes some credit for teaching his grandson to be a hard worker, said the game was over “by halftime.”
It took a little longer than that. The Knights did not slam the door until the closing seconds, but by then Moore already was the man of the moment. He set the offensive tone by scoring the first of his career-high 19 points on a jumper in the paint and a 3-pointer in the opening minutes to let Purdue know this would be no pushover, then helped save the day by blocking Braden Smith’s layup attempt with 12 seconds left that would have pulled Purdue within 61-60.
Instead, the Spoilermakers advance to Sunday’s second-round game against No. 9 Florida Atlantic, which defeated No. 8 Memphis 66-65. Pretty amazing for a program that is only in the tournament because Northeast Conference winner Merrimack was ineligible while moving up to Division I
Is Moore ready for his red carpet entrance?
“It feels remarkable. Sensational. I didn’t think I would be here right now,” he said, looking down at his cell phone to see his 2,800 Instagram followers balloon to 3,300 in the time it took to write this paragraph.
When Moore says he didn’t think he would be here, he doesn’t mean here, as in microphones and cameras stuck in his face after stoning a figurative giant in Purdue and literal giant in Boiler 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey. He means here, at Fairleigh Dickinson, in the NCAA tournament.
A year ago, the 6-4 Moore was playing Division II basketball at St. Thomas Aquinas College in New York, better known for graduating Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran than for producing headline-making basketball. When St. Thomas Aquinas coach Tobin Anderson left for Fairleigh Dickinson after last season, Moore went with him.
“I was a Division II player, now all the sudden I’m a Division I player on the biggest stage and we did the biggest thing in college basketball history,” he said.
Or at least close. If nothing else, it was the biggest -- as in most embarrassing -- loss in Big Ten history. Until Purdue fell, No. 1 seeds were 150-1 against No. 16 seeds; the only upset happening in 2018 when Maryland Baltimore County clobbered No. 1 Virginia 74-54.
How did it become 150-2?
“Coach says every practice, ‘Don’t blink.’” Moore said. “They’re going to make a run. We need to dig in and be gritty, because we’re small, and use that to our advantage by being athletic.”
And focused. As the minutes ticked away, the arena crowd began chanting “FDU … FDU,” but Moore barely heard it.
“My game is to shut out the outside,” he said. “When I’m in the game I tend to not get into the crowd.”
That won’t stop the crowd from getting into him.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “A shout out to Columbus and everyone who came out tonight. I appreciate you all.”
Many of those pulling for Moore had not seen him play since high school, when he was scoring in double digits for the Raiders. The plan was to earn a scholarship to a Division I college, but the only offers came from Division II and III schools, mostly in the Columbus area.
Anderson signed him at St. Thomas Aquinas pretty much sight unseen, on advice from a connection he had through Newark High School.
At that point, Moore could only dream of someday becoming the reality star of March Madness.
“I definitely thought about what it would feel like,” he said. “But now I’m at a loss for words.”
He better find some in a hurry, because after what happened Friday night the college basketball world is all ears.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: NCAA Tournament features Purdue upset, Reynoldsburg graduate heroics