JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Standing at midcourt following a raucous celebration, North Florida coach Matt Driscoll recalled his first team meeting in August 2009.
He gathered his players around a basket, pulled out an Atlantic Sun Conference championship banner and told them to pretend they won the league title and made the NCAA Tournament. The staged event included a net-cutting ceremony with “One Shining Moment” playing in the background.
Five and a half years later — with several of Driscoll’s former players in attendance — the Ospreys got to do it for real.
Demarcus Daniels scored 22 points off the bench, Jalen Nesbitt added 16 and North Florida beat USC Upstate 63-57 in the A-Sun final Sunday to earn its first NCAA Tournament berth.
“It was just something to set the vision, to make sure they understood,” Driscoll said. “If you see it, you can be it. If you view it, you can do it. If you believe it, you can achieve it.”
North Florida (23-11), which ended a five-game losing streak in the series, will be a double-digit seed in the NCAA field and might even wind up in a play-in game. But none of that mattered Sunday.
Many of the school-record crowd of 6,155 rushed the court as the final buzzer sounded. Players and coaches welcomed the swarm, posing for pictures while donning championship hats and T-shirts.
“We are the Champions” blared through UNF Arena. Eventually, A-Sun officials presented the conference trophy and named the all-tournament team. No surprise, Daniels was the Most Valuable Player.
The 6-foot-7 junior from Georgia made two 3-pointers, hit all six of his free throws and added six rebounds and two blocks. Not bad for a bench player who averages 8.9 points.
“He wants me to start. I just chose not to,” Daniels said. “I really can’t explain it. I’m just more comfortable coming off the bench.”
Upstate had won both previous meetings this season and looked like it might sweep the series when it scored the first 11 points of the second half. The Spartans erased a 12-point deficit after the break and led 48-44 midway through the second half.
But Daniels and Nesbitt took over down the stretch, getting in the lane and making things happen. They finished a combined 14 of 30 from the field.
The Ospreys needed their efforts, especially with Dallas Moore, Beau Beech and Chris Davenport a little off. Moore had 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Beech, the team’s second-leading scorer, was 0 for 5 from the field and 0 for 4 from 3-point range. Davenport had eight points and 10 rebounds.
Beech and fellow 3-point bomber Trent Mackey were a combined 0 for 9 from behind the arc, making them 1 of 23 from that range in the last two games.
“If you would have told me that, it would have been a tough sell,” Driscoll said.
The Ospreys’ ability to hit 3s — they rank fourth in the country in treys — makes them a formidable matchup in the NCAA Tournament.
They didn’t rely on those long-range shots against Upstate, finishing 5 of 21 from behind the arc. Instead, Daniels and Nesbitt did most of their damage in and around the paint.
Maybe more important for North Florida, the Ospreys played solid defense against conference player of the year Ty Greene.
Greene led the Spartans (23-11) with 21 points on 9-of-23 shooting, but nearly every look came with a hand in his face.
Moore and Nesbitt joined Daniels on the all-tournament team. Upstate’s Greene and Fred Miller also made it, as did Brett Comer of Florida Gulf Coast and Talbott Denny of Lipscomb.
Nesbitt went to high school in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and got a rare win against his hometown team. “I couldn’t have drew it up better than this. I can finally go home and brag a little bit.”
USC Upstate: Greene rolled his left ankle and busted his lip during the game, but played 39 minutes. … The Spartans finished with five assists and 14 turnovers.
North Florida: Had never finished higher than fourth in the A-Sun since moving to Division I in the 2005-06 season. … Had lost eight of nine to Upstate before Sunday. … Moore’s 70-year-old maternal uncle, Raymond “Coonie” Johns, died earlier this week from kidney failure.