A mere two days ago, North Florida was still looking for its first postseason win as a Division I program. Now the unheralded Ospreys are just one victory away from their first-ever NCAA tournament berth.
Despite a pedestrian 15-18 overall record, 10 league losses and a rotation that has only one senior, seventh-seeded North Florida has earned a meeting with formidable Belmont on Saturday in the Atlantic Sun title game.
On Thursday, the Ospreys upset third-seeded Jacksonville, an in-state rival who had beaten them in the previous 11 times they met. Then on Friday, the Ospreys toppled second-seeded East Tennessee State for the first time in school history, handing the Buccaneers a 59-55 loss in the second of two Atlantic Sun semifinals.
The key play in Friday night's game was a contested missed layup from East Tennessee State's Adam Sollazzo with under 20 seconds remaining and North Florida leading by two. Forward David Jeune grabbed the rebound with 14 seconds left and sank both free throws, securing the win for the Ospreys.
It's difficult to believe North Florida will play for an NCAA tournament berth on Saturday considering the Ospreys are in just their second season of Division I postseason eligibility. This is a program that has lost 84 games the past four years and is only three years removed from a 3-26 season in 2008.
Even though North Florida's victories over Jacksonville and East Tennessee State were considered big upsets, the challenge facing the Ospreys is even greater against league champion Belmont. The Bruins went 19-1 in Atlantic Sun play and won 16 league games by double figures, though one of those four single-digit games was a two-point win over North Florida in February.
Belmont relies heavily on its 3-point shooting prowess, so North Florida's best chance might be catching the Bruins in a coldspell. Win or lose on Saturday night, this three-day run will be something for the fledgling North Florida program to build on going forward.