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In the ASUN quarterfinals, North Florida showed why it could win the tournament...or get rocked in the semis

UNF nearly blew a huge lead to NJIT

NCAA Basketball: North Florida at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

NEWARK — For the first 22 minutes of North Florida’s 80-76 ASUN quarterfinal win over NJIT, the Ospreys showed why they could be a surprise entrant to the NCAA Tournament.

As they built a lead that eventually ballooned to 26 early in the second half, the Ospreys stifled the Highlanders with their zone, forcing bad shots, turnovers, and downright ugly possessions. On the other end, UNF moved the ball crisply, finding open opportunities from three, and for a time, simply could not miss.

It was easy to see why the Ospreys were the most efficient offensive team in the ASUN this season, per KenPom. They are one of the fastest teams in the country, ranking 10th nationally in tempo, but that’s not because all they do is run. It’s because they know how to quickly find good shots, and they can knock them down at an alarming clip.

Garrett Sams led that charge, scoring 14 in the first half on 4-5 shooting from three. He finished with a game-high 28 points.

The Highlanders had run into a buzzsaw and there was nothing they could do to stop it. Once the threes stopped falling (at least with regularity) for the Ospreys, they drove to the basket. If they did not score there, they drew a foul, which was precisely the goal.

UNF prides itself on its free throw shooting. As a team, the Ospreys shot 76.7 percent from the line — top-30 in the country — and went 23-28 on Monday.

“Free throws are a big emphasis for us,” Sams said. “We actually do a drill in practice where nobody can miss on the team and if we do, we have to run. It’s a good practice to simulate some game pressure.”

And so the energy and discipline on both ends resulted in a 47-21 lead for UNF with around 18 minutes to go.

That’s where it began to fall apart.

It started quietly enough: a free throw, a stop, a jumper, another stop, a three. But with every passing possession, the Highlanders appeared to be gaining confidence and energy. UNF’s looks from three weren’t quite as open. The Ospreys started to look rushed instead of fast. NJIT was a step quicker offensively. The Highlanders attacked the zone with more purpose.

It took only 2:05 to turn a 26-point deficit into a manageable 15-point deficit. And even when Trip Day hit a three to restore order and put the Ospreys back up 18, the crowd at the Wellness and Events Center had woken up.

“They turned us over,” Driscoll said. “They just sped us up. To their credit, they were able to help us create those live turnovers. I bet you they got four naked layups. You can’t defend that, I don’t care how good of a defensive team you are.”

In the second half, NJIT scored 21 points off of 11 turnovers and out-rebounded UNF 22-15. As the pressure mounted, UNF began to play more conservatively, abandoning what it did to build its lead to begin with.

“It felt like we were playing not to lose, and that’s not how you want to approach life,” Driscoll said. “We needed to do a better job of understanding that we were in control of the game. We controlled the game because we defended and rebounded.”

Somehow, NJIT was able to whittle the deficit to one with 19 seconds to go. In a month filled with nearly impossible comebacks, this likely would have been another had UNF not made its free throws down the stretch. In fact, the Ospreys were 13-14 from the stripe in the final three minutes.

That sets up a date with 1 seed Florida Gulf Coast in Fort Myers on Thursday. The Eagles won both regular season contests, most recently by 33 points on Jan. 29. It’s going to take a complete effort if UNF hopes to pull off the upset — one where the Ospreys’ effort the first 22 minutes on Monday lasts the full 40.