JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The North Florida Ospreys 3-point shooting, a staple for the success that the team has experienced this year, was off for Thursday night's Atlantic Sun Conference semifinal matchup with Lipscomb at the UNF Arena.
But the Ospreys "Moore" than made up for it in other ways.
Dallas Moore turned in a career-best 36 points on 12-of-17 shooting from the field to power UNF to a 71-57 win over Lipscomb in front of a raucous crowd of 4,106, the third largest in school history.
With the win, the Ospreys (22-11) moved to within a game of becoming the nation's Cinderella story this year. A win over USC Upstate on Sunday will give North Florida its first berth in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Game time Sunday is set for 2:30 p.m. at the Arena. Tickets are still available although the lower section of seating is close to sold out in anticipation of the build up to the game. The game will be telecast on ESPN2.
It wasn't a normal North Florida victory on Thursday. For the last six games, the Ospreys had finished with at least four players scoring 10 points or more. Against the Bisons, Moore's career-best and 15 points from Chris Davenport were the only two UNF players to reach double digits. No other Osprey player had more than 7 points.
The 3-point shooting that had been so strong all during the A-Sun regular season wasn't there. The Ospreys finished with just 6-of-24 (25 percent) from beyond the arc, their fewest number of treys in a game since hitting for five against Northern Kentucky on Jan. 22. It was their lowest percentage since they connected on 5-of-24 at Florida State in mid-December.
Fortunately Moore picked this game to come up with his best-ever. The sophomore guard, named an All-Conference first-team selection earlier in the week, had never put together a 30-point game in his two years with the Ospreys. His previous best was 27 points which he's done on two occasions, the latest coming against Florida Gulf Coast when the Eagles visited here in January.
It was a game that the Ospreys needed Moore's best. He made all but two of his shots in the first half including all three shots from beyond the arc to finish with 17 points and give the Ospreys a 37-24 lead at intermission.
"I knew it was going to be a special night when I hit those first two 3s," Moore said in reference to his first two treys in the opening 2 ½ minutes of the game. "I could feel a rhythm at that point. It was dropping for me tonight so I kept shooting it."
That was especially the case in the second half. Moore scored all but two of UNF's first 16 points of the half which covered 15 minutes of play. During that time he hit a three, threw up a couple of patented floaters that found nothing but net, drove hard for another basket and added five free throws. Lipscomb stayed close with the Ospreys during that time, using points from a number of players. Six different players scored for the Bison on their first six scoring plays. When All-Conference guard Josh Williams hit for a floater with 5:40 left in the game, it was a four-point UNF lead at 51-47.
That's when Moore ignited a 10-4 run with a basket and two free throws. Jalen Nesbitt brought the crowd to its feet with just under five minutes to play when he stole the ball and outraced two defenders to the basket for a thunderous slam dunk.
"That may have been the loudest I've ever heard it in the UNF Arena in my six years here," UNF coach Matthew Driscoll said.
Another dunk by Davenport and two more Moore free throws were followed by a Nesbitt drive to the basket and UNF was suddenly up by ten points again with just under 2 ½ minutes to play. The Ospreys relied on their free throw shooting down the stretch to maintain and eventually increase their lead as they converted 8-of-10 shots from the line in the closing minutes to secure the win.
"We certainly weren't on our A game tonight shooting 41 percent from the field," Driscoll said. "However when you can shoot 41 percent and win by 14, how do you do it? You've got to have accuracy at the free throw line. We did that with 25-of-29 at the line. We're the best free throw shooting team in the league."
Only four players attempted free throws but all were solid. Davenport (8-of-8) and Demarcus Daniels (4-of-4) were perfect, Beau Beech (5-of-6) nearly was and Moore can be excused for missing 3 of his 11 shots with his overall superb performance.
"[North Florida] is just an outstanding team," Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander said. "They have talented players. I voted for Nesbitt and Davenport to be on the first team all-conference and neither one of them made it. Moore is such a dual threat. He can use that ball screen out front to drive on you or pull up and hit the 3-pointer. And he's great at kicking it out to Beech and Mackey all day."
Davenport and Nesbitt were strong on the boards for the Ospreys, finishing with 9 and 8 rebounds respectively to lead UNF to a 39-35 advantage. Nesbitt also had half of the Ospreys' 10 assists in the game. With his first free throw on the night, Beech became the 10th player in UNF history to join the 1,000-point club.
Sunday's championship game will mark just the second appearance for the Ospreys in the league's final game. The team's other trip to the title game game during the 2010-11 season.