I know no one outside of the city of Jacksonville cared much about what happened Saturday night at UNF Arena. However, those who cared enough to make it inside were treated to two rivals, the North Florida (UNF) Ospreys and Jacksonville Dolphins, trading body blows for 40 minutes with the Dolphins coming away with a 90-86 win.
“As a basketball player if you don’t like this environment – a hostile environment, where you can go up-and-down and dunk and be athletic and shoot the ball when you get stops then I don’t know what else you want,” Jacksonville senior guard Devin Harris said. “You’re playing the game everybody wish they could play.”
It was an enthusiastic crowd all game long. UNF fans showed up with “Beat JU” shirts and screamed at the Dolphins during the layup line to let them know they meant it. Among those fans were several former Ospreys; each one greeted by UNF head coach Matthew Driscoll with a hug. Even they knew it was big.
Once the action on the floor began, the fans got louder and had a great game to match. The game was free-flowing with run after run. There was UNF pushing the ball even after made baskets. Then there was Jacksonville, running pick and roll after pick and roll.
“You gotta give them credit,” Driscoll said. “They fought back like we fought back. They took the lead after we took the lead.”
It had a key player for Jacksonville heading to the bench – allowing for what seemed to be a back-breaking run for the Ospreys, before a freshman took the game over.
What makes this even more fascinating, is how this wasn’t even a game that would count on a NCAA tournament resume 15-years-ago.
UNF is fairly new to Division I athletics – playing its first season as a full member in 2009-2010. Since then the program won two regular season Atlantic Sun championships in 2015 and 2016 and went to its first NCAA tournament in 2015. They made it all the way to the Atlantic Sun Championship game last season before losing to Florida Gulf Coast.
By contrast, Jacksonville has struggled since UNF became full members. The Dolphins haven’t won a regular season Atlantic Sun title since that 2009-2010 season. They haven’t been to the Big Dance since 1986 and before Saturday’s win, they hadn’t beaten the Ospreys since Feb. 15, 2013.
That was the state of both programs before entering Saturday’s game. From the outset it seemed this one would be different. The Dolphins were getting healthy and went toe-to-toe with the Ospreys for much of the first half as the score was 22-19 at the second media timeout. That’s when UNF’s pace seem to take over. The Ospreys outscored the Dolphins 26-19 over the last 9:19 of the first half to take a 52-42 lead at the half.
The second half began in similar fashion as the Ospreys took a 12 point lead on a layup by sophomore forward Noah Horchler with just 30 seconds gone from the half. From that moment, the Dolphins would outscore the Ospreys 22-5 to take a 64-59 lead with 12:55 remaining in the game.
The teams traded scores before Jacksonville’s 70-65 lead with 9:39 remaining. That’s when UNF answered with their 13-0 run, partly with Harris on the bench, to take a 78-70 lead with 6:04 remaining.
This was the moment of the game when the Dolphins seem to be on the ropes. The crowd was at its loudest and it seemed like the momentum had shifted for good. This is when Jacksonville freshman guard J.D. Notae took over.
Notae scored 14 of his 25 points over the last 5:38 to help the Dolphins to a 18-6 run and steal the game on the road. Not only cementing his place in the rivalry, but doing things the opposing coach said he was expecting as he saw Notae a lot on the recruiting trail.
“The thing about Notae is he has a scorer’s mentality. He’s always had a scorer’s mentality,” said Driscoll. “He’s a Georgia kid who played with one of our Georgia kids and we saw him a lot. He really has a great feel for who he is, what he is and what he wants to do.”
It was first game of conference play for both teams and they’ll both have to regroup quickly. However, they play again on Feb. 22 at Historic Swisher Gym on Jacksonville’s campus. You can’t help, but look forward to another classic matchup.