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Journey to the Tourney

Basketball teammates celebrate after a win

There is hardly an inch of free space on the cabinets and walls in Coach Matthew Driscoll’s office.


Nearly every spot is covered by a photo or memento he holds close to his heart. There’s the picture of Ekpe Udoh, the NBA center and former pupil of his from Baylor University who invited him to the 2010 NBA draft. Then there’s the framed newspaper article eulogizing the life of Coach Scott Lang, a close coaching confidant and friend of Driscoll who died of a heart attack at center court while he was coaching his La Roche College team in practice.


The items decorating his office form a narrative of Driscoll’s coaching journey — a vibrant, overlapping tapestry illustrating the struggles and successes of a man who led the University of North Florida’s men’s basketball team from Atlantic Sun afterthought to conference champs. While the Ospreys’ 2014-2015 season ended in March with a loss to Robert Morris in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament, the team still climbed to previously unknown heights. First was an Atlantic Sun Conference Regular Season Championship. Next came the first ticket sellout of the UNF Arena, a decisive victory against USC Upstate, a stands-clearing court rush by thousands of jubilant Osprey fans and an automatic bid to March Madness. The 2014-2015 year was truly the best season ever for UNF basketball.


“My goal coming to UNF in 2009- 2010 was to see us competing for conference championships,” said
Lee Moon, UNF’s athletics director. “Watching our guys raise that Atlantic Sun Conference trophy, it was the culmination of years of hard work by our staff and student-athletes.”


The national exposure of winning a championship skyrocketed interest in the University. Merchandise sales shot up exponentially, and scores of new fans learned to swoop. If you ask Driscoll, this is just the beginning.


“People who are relentless aren’t afraid of what’s next,” he said. “They do what they need to do to keep moving forward, keep stepping up the stairs. These guys know what is expected of them if they want to get back to this level and move forward.”


Early Expectations
There was an elephant in the room. That’s how Driscoll summarized the vibe in the Osprey locker room at
the beginning of the past season. The team had returned a crop of promising sophomores, juniors and battle-tested seniors Devin Wilson and Jalen Nesbitt — all ready to take on bigger roles. They were deep at every position, had good size and defensive aptitude and were stocked with wing players who could shoot the lights out. The media and coaches selected UNF as the No. 2 team in the conference in the preseason. The pressure was on before the team’s first tip. Driscoll, however, wasn’t satisfied with No. 2. He had a loftier goal in mind.


“I was the only coach to pick us to win the league,” he said, laughing that he was even given the option to vote for his own team. “How does any coach who has worked with these guys look at them and not vote for them? The one thing the guys got from me at the beginning of the year is that they’re a talented team. Every day they were hearing expectations, expectations, expectations. But my job was to get them to focus on the task and take it a game at a time.”


That task was to stay sharp during a season marked with peaks and valleys. The preseason was a blur of games against non-conference teams and a tournament appearance at the Triple Crown Sports’ Cancun Challenge in Mexico. There were highs — becoming the first two-time Cancun Challenge champion and beating Purdue University — and lows — a run of bad luck that caused the team to drop four straight against stiff competition. But with pivotal games against Atlantic Sun Conference opponents fast on the horizon, forward Demarcus “BaeBae” Daniels inspired a new direction for Driscoll and the team.

The Season Refresh
Daniels likened the situation to the spinning pinwheel that every computer user has witnessed while they wait impatiently
for a website to display. He said they needed to redouble their efforts and refocus their attack. The stakes were higher, though, than waiting for a Gmail account to finish loading. They needed to refresh the season.


“We were in a team meeting and BaeBae kept using that phrase — refresh,” Driscoll said. “It made me think to break the
season up into pieces. The preseason and the Cancun Tournament were a different part of the year. Conference play was a new season for them.”


The team launched into conference play renewed, raining threes on the Atlantic Sun and blitzing the competition en route to a six-game winning streak. That barrage of jumpers led to a nickname that followed the Ospreys throughout the year —
the Birds of Trey.


Birds of Trey
UNF was one of the top teams in the nation in three-point shots made and attempted in 2014-2015, and Driscoll had enough lineup flexibility to stack the floor with shooters from point guard to center. Daniels said coach didn’t limit his team’s instincts. If the shots came within the flow of the offense, they were free to hoist them up.


“We had the green light to shoot all year,” Daniels said. “He doesn’t get mad when we take a lot of threes. We have
a lot of shooters on the team, like Trent [Mackey], so the whole Birds of Trey thing came into its own.”


Mackey, a marksman from deep who transferred to UNF from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said he enjoyed having the freedom to let it fly.


“It’s tough to guard a team when everyone out there can shoot,” he said. As the threes dropped and the wins piled up, the potential of a first-ever NCAA tournament berth for UNF started creeping into the conversation. The talking heads started mentioning the Ospreys on Twitter, and Joe Lunardi, the man behind the famed Bracketology breakdown on ESPN’s website, slated UNF as the Atlantic Sun Conference’s tournament representative. That elephant from the preseason had definitely re-entered the room.


The Most Important Game
The biggest game in UNF basketball history was actually played across a span of two weeks. At least that’s how Driscoll described it. Starting with the Ospreys’ second matchup against rival Florida Gulf Coast, the team played a string of games that all carried historical significance. In short order, they clinched a home playoff game, laid claim to the Atlantic Sun Regular Season Championship and ensured a home game for each round of the playoffs through which they advanced.


The media discussion inevitably turned to the fact that the team was on the cusp of something big — something historic for the University. “It became kind of a joke,” Driscoll said. “Every game kept on being our most important game. So I just told them to do what they do and be ballers.”


Guards Dallas Moore and Beau Beech were key contributors to UNF’s free-flowing, three-point-heavy offense. Beech, a rangy guard with enough height to shoot over the defense, and Moore, a lightning-quick point with a wide array of moves off the dribble, turned heads throughout the year. They were both named to the Atlantic Sun All- Conference First Team and helped power the Ospreys to the postseason.


Moore, however, dealt with a personal tragedy as the Ospreys were in the thick of the playoffs. His uncle, Raymond “Coonie” Johns, passed away shortly before UNF’s quarterfinal game against Stetson. His family asked Driscoll and his staff to wait until after the game to tell Moore that his uncle, with whom he was particularly close, had passed. The team jumped out to a big lead in the first half, and Driscoll pulled Moore from the game in preparation for breaking the news. However, Stetson fought back, and the lead began trickling away. Coach held firm and kept Moore out of the game, saying that he felt the best thing for his star point guard was to sit. The Ospreys eventually closed out Stetson, and Driscoll brought Moore back to the locker room, where with the help of his coaching staff and Moore’s closest friends on the team, Chris Davenport and Romelo Banks, he broke the news about his uncle’s passing. Tears were shed, but the emotional outpouring only served to solidify the team’s already tight bonds. Moore dropped 36 points on Lipscomb two days later in the semifinals in memory of Coonie.


“It was tough,” Moore said. “My team was there for me. So I wanted to be there for them and get that win.”


Just Go 1-0
The victory catapulted the Ospreys into the conference finals against USC Upstate, a team that had bested them twice during the regular season. Driscoll, with his characteristic determination, brushed off any discussion of Upstate posing a matchup problem for his team. He instead doubled down on a philosophy that he’d borrowed from his friend and colleague, Scott Lang, the La Roche coach who died suddenly on the court.


“Scott’s big thing was 1-0,” Driscoll said. “Just go 1-0. Control what you can control. That’s what I told
the guys.” 


When the Ospreys took the court at UNF Arena in the finals Sunday, March 8, they were greeted
by thousands of UNF faithful waving signs bearing Lang’s inspirational “1-0” message. The noise level in the Arena was louder than the runway at Jacksonville International Airport. Thousands more watched from home on ESPN 2 as UNF played in their second Atlantic Sun ConferenceChampionship — the first televised from UNF. The cameras caught everything— from the raucous home crowd to the intense on-court action. 


The broadcast also propelled one previously anonymous member of the Osprey Pep Band into the stratosphere. When Stephen Putnam launched into his now customary dance during the first called timeout of the second half, ESPN 2 was there to document his vertebra-jangling moves. Putnam was tweeted and shared across the country, as were the Ospreys, who triumphed over Upstate and claimed the University’s first Division I conference basketball championship. 


Once that final buzzer sounded, the floodgates opened. Students and spectators stormed the court in a writhing sea of Osprey Pride. One of the few sights that could be seen above the scrum was Dallas Moore, held aloft on the shoulders of center Romelo Banks, the tallest
man on the court.


“I wanted him to see everything from up there,” Banks joked. 

A Media Storm 
Much like the stream of fans who rushed the court, the media inquiries rolled in like a wave. Driscoll said he had hundreds of texts and e-mails to sort through the night after the championship game, and the number only kept growing. He made multiple appearances with local and national media. If there was an outlet that wanted to talk about UNF’s tournament-berth clinching victory, Driscoll was ready to go. Jim Rome, a syndicated CBS Sports Radio host with years of on-air experience, was so impressed with the UNF’s coach unyielding enthusiasm that he applauded him for an “awesome, awesome conversation.”


“Matthew Driscoll. Remember the name,” Rome said. “Head coach of the University of North Florida.”


The Swoop Life was on display nationally, highlighted by an extended featured with ESPN reporter and UNF alum Sara Walsh (more on page 16). The unprecedented media attention continued through Selection Sunday, when UNF was matched up against Robert Morris in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio. The winner of the game was scheduled to continue on to play the Duke Blue Devils in Charlotte, N.C.Although the Ospreys came up short against Robert Morris, the team learned many valuable lessons in the process. They got a taste of the next level of competition and gained a first-hand perspective of what they need to do to make sure they return to March Madness.


“Like coach says, we need to keep being ballers,” Daniels said. “These dudes want to win some tournament games, so we have to take care of business from here until March every day. It’s all about that work, and we won’t allow each other to slack. We keep each other accountable. We’re hungry.”

The Great Journey
When a season like this comes to an end, there’s a bit of a lull. The break-neck pace of the year winds down, although a slowed-down version of Driscoll would likely run laps around your average coach. He said he took some time to respond to the messages he couldn’t return during the playoffs. Letters from across the country were stacked up in his office, many of which were from fans and alumni who shared tales about how UNF’s historical tournament journey inspired them. He’s already begun adding some of the notes and well- wishes to the other mementos lining his office. He’ll remember those messages and impart their meanings to the next generation of Osprey student-athletes who take a seat in his office and look upon the wall of stories illustrating the journey of the first coach to lead UNF to the NCAA Tournament.


“The growth of this school is tremendous,” Driscoll said. “We’re Ospreys. We’re unique. And my vision is that we’re going to keep getting better and keep swooping harder every year.”