Men’s basketball fights back in final minutes to pick up win in home opener

Riley Platt, Sports Editor

The University of North Florida men’s basketball team took to the new CSI Companies Court for the first time, completing a lengthy comeback to defeat South Carolina State on Saturday.

The UNF Ospreys dropped their first two games of the season in road duels with major-conference opponents. The SC State Bulldogs entered Saturday with a similar story but showcased just what they’re capable of when they almost knocked off SEC opponent South Carolina in their opener.

As the game got underway, SC State established themselves down low with force. UNF’s three-guard lineup was getting dominated around the rim, but the team’s roster makeup and early foul trouble limited their ability to combat this.

The Ospreys survived this opening storm, eventually leveling things out as they settled in. During that time, though, the Bulldogs did jump out to a double-digit lead. Compounding the issue was UNF’s lack of success from three-point range, hitting just three of their 15 attempts from deep during the first half.

Jonathan Aybar shoots free throw
The Ospreys excelled from the free throw line in the first half, converting on 9-10 attempts. (David Heitz)

Outrebounded and outshot, the Ospreys managed to enter the halftime break only down by four points. This in itself was a small victory, as just about every metric imaginable would have pointed to a far more uneven score.

The Bulldogs jumped out of the break barking, opening their lead to seven points in a hurry. UNF had an answer in the form of a three-pointer from veteran forward Carter Hendricksen. The fifth-year senior contributed his fair share on Saturday, accounting for 17 points and seven rebounds. 

While the Kentucky native typically garners attention hitting threes, Hendricksen went to work down low on Saturday to help UNF, who was previously getting dominated in this area.

“We just went out to attack,” Hendricksen said. “We knew we could get whatever looks we wanted, [we just had] to take the best one.”

Basketball player dribbles into the paint
Hendricksen has been the cornerstone of the once-young UNF squad as they have matured into the unit they are today. (David Heitz)

As the game progressed, things remained painfully close. Every time UNF would inch closer to making it even, SC State would hit a shot to open their lead back up, something that UNF head coach Matthew Driscoll pointed to postgame.

“Every time we’d get close, they’d go up three,” Driscoll said. “To their credit, they just kept coming.”

UNF’s relentless pursuit paid dividends, though, as the chasing came to an end with less than four minutes remaining. Newcomer Oscar Berry, who was previously 0-3 on the night, sank an open three-pointer to tie the game at 62-62. 

The Ospreys weren’t done just yet, coming up with an open steal on the defensive end. Guard Jose Placer, who led the team with 18 points, nailed an open three to give UNF its first lead since the score was 3-2 very early on in the contest.

Placer drives towards the rim with defenders in pursuit
Jose Placer led the team in scoring, coming up huge down the stretch with some critical makes. (David Heitz)

What came next has been a source of struggle for this group over the past two seasons: closing out games. 

Practice paid off, as the Ospreys did everything right from here on out. After padding the lead, they hit critical free throws that came after intentional fouls, which SC State was forced to resort to in order to extend the game.

Another element that helped was something that the squad had seen earlier that night: full-court pressing. The Bulldogs implemented this in the first half, causing stress for the UNF faithful. This helped prepare the Ospreys for when they saw it once again in the closing moments Saturday. They made the right passes, not falling victim to any of SC State’s traps.

A 72-66 win against a quality opponent was huge for the Ospreys. Things don’t let up, though, as they hit the road to face Duquesne on Monday and then square off with the Kentucky Wildcats Wednesday. 

Saturday’s showing proved what this team can be capable of, even when things aren’t going right across the board. When everything is clicking, this group could be a force to be reckoned with in the ASUN this season.


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