The University of North Florida was watching the Atlantic Sun Conference’s top player pick them apart in the first half.
Their own interior leader sat injured on the sidelines.
The Ospreys were staring at their worst conference start in Matthew Driscoll’s nine-year tenure.
“There’s an old saying in athletics, to punch somebody in the mouth,” Driscoll said. “They were definitely punching us in the mouth.”
So it wasn’t easy to imagine that the Ospreys would be walking away from UNF Arena with a 102-96 win against Lipscomb on Thursday night.
But that’s what happened after Noah Horchler got a double-double with 16 points and 15 rebounds, J.T. Escobar led the sharp-shooting offense with five 3-pointers and gritty guard Ivan Gandia-Rosa put the game away with clutch free throws down the stretch.
UNF struggled in the early going as Bisons junior guard Garrison Mathews, already named conference player of the week four times this season, looked like adding a fifth award by scoring 21 points before halftime.
“He’s as talented as they come,” said Driscoll, who said that former Ospreys guard Beau Beech simulated Mathews in practice earlier this week before his return to the NBA’s developmental G-League.
But the Birds of Trey offense, which converted 14 of their 27 efforts from 3-point range and shot 51.9 percent from beyond the arc, brought the Ospreys (7-12, 1-1) back.
When they needed a clutch three, they usually got one from Escobar, who fought through a stomach illness to give UNF a short-lived lead just before halftime and a permanent one at 17:23 of the second half.
“When somebody’s feeling that, it just catches up to everybody else,” Gandia-Rosa said.
That ignited an all-out surge, with UNF outscoring Lipscomb 29-11 in a span of seven minutes and 20 seconds.
“I really thought that we dictated a lot of the toughness and the energy in the stops… that really gets these guys energized,” Driscoll said.
Finally, Gandia-Rosa put the game away by becoming a Bird of One down the stretch, making all 11 free throw attempts to squelch a late rally by the Bisons (11-6, 1-1).
Led by Horchler, UNF contained Lipscomb on the boards even without Wajid Aminu. The sophomore forward sat on the sidelines in a walking boot on his right ankle instead of basketball shoes and a white sweater instead of a gray Ospreys home jersey.
Aminu had sprained that ankle late in the first half last Saturday against cross-town rival Jacksonville University. Driscoll said that he will be out “for a while,” though he said Aminu could return slightly earlier than it took Garrett Sams to get back from a similar injury.
“We just had to play bigger inside since Wajid went down,” Horchler said.
The Ospreys stayed in the game with their 3-point shooting, hitting 7 of 13 shots from distance in the first half to erase an 11-point deficit.
Mathews led the Bisons with 32 points but cooled off after the break, and Rob Marberry added 20.
UNF’s shooting touch turned cold late, with just one basket from the field in the last eight minutes, but Gandia-Rosa scored the last of his 26 points from the line to seal the win.
With the victory, the Ospreys avoided the program’s first 0-2 start in the conference since 2008-09, the last season under Driscoll’s predecessor, Matt Kilcullen.
The Ospreys hit the 100-point mark for the first time against an ASUN opponent since beating NJIT 107-71 on Feb. 18, 2016. Now, when the Ospreys return to the floor Saturday at home against Kennesaw State, they won’t be carrying a losing streak.
That, Driscoll said, is down to the toughness honed during the non-conference schedule.
“These guys have learned to wash it out [previous losses] quick,” he said.