JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Ospreys are going dancing like they've never danced before.
Amidst the largest crowd ever to see an Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament championship game, North Florida put together another solid team effort to record a 63-57 win over South Carolina Upstate Sunday afternoon to secure the Ospreys first trip to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Commonly known as "The Big Dance", North Florida will now await word next Sunday when the pairings and sites are announced for 68 entries into this year's tournament. The Ospreys could play as early as Tuesday, March 17, in one of the first four games in Dayton, Ohio. Otherwise they will open tournament action that Thursday or Friday, depending on the site they are assigned to.
"If you believe it, you can achieve it," was part of UNF coach Matthew Driscoll's message to the crowd in a raucous, festive celebration afterwards that included some 1,500 students storming the court when the final horn sounded. All had watched North Florida (23-11) run its winning streak to a school record eight consecutive games.
What transpired at the Arena before that was a sight and sound never seen or heard before. The standing-room only crowd of 6,155 took up every available seat and left several hundred others standing, just glad to be in the arena for the game. No one, other than the handful of hearty Upstate fans on hand, left disappointed. The attendance not only set a new UNF Arena record but also set a new ASun Tournament Championship game record.
Demarcus "BaeBae" Daniels became the seventh Osprey player to crack the 20-point plateau this year, hitting on 7-of-13 shots and all six of his free throws to account for a game-high 22 points. Daniels had never scored more than 17 points in his two seasons with the Ospreys, but he was in a different zone on Sunday.
"We took our lumps at times this year, but we stayed together and never altered our course," Daniels said. "We lost four games in a row in December and people started to doubt us. Now, to have it end up like this today, it's just a great feeling, a satisfying feeling that we accomplished our goal that we set last June.
"We're such a balanced team. Last game it was Dallas' game with 36 points. Today, I guess it was my time and I just did what I had to do, making my shots, making my free throws."
The game itself was ragged at times, with both teams missing more shots than usual. North Florida and Upstate were the top two shooting teams in the league this year, but it didn't show throughout much of the first half and into the second half for the Ospreys.
When the teams stopped for the first TV timeout at the 15:41 mark, they showed a combined 1-for-13 shooting at the time with Upstate holding a 2-0 lead. Fortunately it got better the next 15 minutes, especially for UNF.
Dallas Moore threw up a floater shortly after the break, Jalen Nesbitt produced back-to-back layups and Daniels drilled his first of two treys in the game to give the Ospreys a 9-6 lead. They maintained the advantage the rest of the half, building the margin to nine points at 34-25 at intermission. The Ospreys did a good job in limiting A-Sun Player-of-the-Year, Ty Greene, to just five points at halftime on 2-of-11 shooting.
But the good feeling that permeated the arena at halftime, quickly disappeared in the first four minutes of the second half. That's when Upstate (23-11) put together a surge of 11 consecutive points to take the lead away from the Ospreys.
UNF countered with a burst of its own, scoring six straight points for a four point margin at 40-36. But again, Upstate, winners of a school-record 22 games this season including both of the previous contests with UNF, came back with a 10-2 run to take another four-point lead at 46-42. It was to be their last hurrah.
Daniels and Chris Davenport combined for eight points, Nesbitt added another reverse layin and Moore scored on a fast break to cap a 12-0 UNF run which gave them a 56-48 cushion with 3:30 remaining. Upstate never got closer than five points the rest of the game.
When the final horn went off, the record turnout of students that showed their support throughout the game, erupted on to the court and engulfed the UNF team in a matter of seconds. For the next 10 minutes, with a rendition of "We Are the Champions" echoing throughout the arena, there was dancing, high-fives, hugs and kisses from family, friends and a host of UNF fans.
"It's just an unbelievable feeling. This is the best moment in my life," Moore said afterwards. "To be able to run up in the stands and hug my mom and share this feeling with her, it just made this all the more special. She's only had a chance to see me three or four times this year because she works a lot.
"This was emotional as my uncle died the day of the Stetson game and it was really tough on her. I had to be strong for both of us. I broke down and cried in the coach's office afterwards, but I knew I had to be strong for her so this really means a lot to be able to share it with her."
Daniels scored his 22 points in 30 minutes of action, coming off the bench in both halves to join four starters who played at least 29 minutes. Daniels talked about his desire to come off the bench and not be in the starting lineup.
"I just like to analyze the game and see what I need to do when I go in," the junior forward said. "When you come in from off the bench, if you come in slacking, you're going to be left behind. It leaves me no choice but to come in and play at 100 percent and that's what I like to do."
Nesbitt, the only senior starter in the Ospreys lineup talked about the importance of staying on Greene and limiting his points as much as possible. Beau Beech started out guarding Greene but Nesbitt later switched to guarding the unanimous all-conference first-team guard.
"We knew he would he would come out aggressive and the game plan was to make him work for every shot he takes," Nesbitt said. "We did a pretty good job on that."
Two other Ospreys joined Daniels in double figures. Nesbitt finished with 16 points and Moore added 13. Davenport was a demon on the boards and finished with 10 boards and just missed a double-double with eight points.
Greene finished with 21 points but needed 23 shots to make nine field goals. Fred Miller added 14 points for the Spartans.
"It was an unbelievable atmosphere here today and we went toe to toe with them for nearly the entire game," Greene said. "I'm proud of the way we represented ourselves in a hostile environment. But we came up short of our goal which is disappointing."