DAYTON, Ohio – How do you come back from a 13-point second half deficit against a red-hot shooting team? Well, first you extend your defense and hope to cool them off, but how about going an entire half without committing a single turnover?
Robert Morris, who entered the NCAA Tournament just 239th nationally in turnover rate (20.1%), had zero, zip, nada turnovers in the second half as they stormed from behind to beat a North Florida team many thought had no business being in a play-in game, 81-77 at UD Arena.
“Tremendously gutty effort by these guys,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said. “Execution of offense, coming up with stops, coming up with rebounds, really pressuring them, not allowing them to make threes in the second half. I didn’t even look at the stat sheet in the entire second half.”
The Colonials’ zone baffled the Ospreys (23-12) early, forcing 10 turnovers in the game’s first 12 minutes and allowing even a cold-shooting Robert Morris (20-14) to grab a 19-12 lead. But then North Florida starting firing away, led by 6’7” junior Beau Beech, who would finish with a season-high 28 points on 6-10 shooting from behind the arc. By the time the Ospreys were done making 9 of 10 shots late in the first half, they were finishing off a 21-6 run of their own and led 35-29 at the half.
The lead ballooned to 13 just 1:22 into the second half on Romelo Banks’ only three points of the game and Robert Morris didn’t seem to have many answers at either end of the floor against a team that won both the regular season and tournament in the Atlantic Sun, a conference that had three NCAA wins in the last two years, none of them coming in Dayton (and boasted a non-conference win at NCAA team Purdue).
But the turnover bug that North Florida had seemingly eliminated suddenly came roaring back as Toole and the Colonials mixed defenses a little more. At the other end, Robert Morris started converting chances near the rim, or at least getting fouled after missing several layups at the end of the first half.
“I would never discredit what Robert Morris did and say that we whatever,” North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll said. “But I will say this: our turnovers were self-inflicted at some points (the Ospreys finished with 19 turnovers, a 26.4% rate), and when you self-inflict and you allow them to get out and run, it’s very, very difficult to stop and get those key stops that you need.”
And Robert Morris didn’t turn the ball over at all, zero in the second half, and just five for the game, the 7.0% turnover rate the lowest of the season by a pretty wide margin and third lowest under Toole.
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A 12-0 run got them back in it, but Robert Morris still trailed 60-53 with nine minutes left. Then, as they did last week in Brooklyn, Lucky Jones and Rodney Prior – both of whom (at 6’6” and 6’5”, respectively) – are tough to contest outside shots against – hit three-pointers to make it a 1-point game. It was Jones with two free throws and Prior with another three-pointer to complete an 11-0 run, give the Colonials their first second-half lead, and make them believe the game was theirs.
“That’s all we spoke about in the second half,” Lucky Jones said. “We’ve been down six before in a hostile environment (in the NEC final). We know we didn’t play our best basketball. And all we had to do was maintain, stay together and just go out there and have fun. I think we did that to the best of our abilities.”
North Florida came back to tie it once more at 66, but NEC Rookie of Year Marcquise Reed, who was in foul trouble for most of the NEC final and scored just four points in the first half, drove the length of the floor, scored and and was fouled. Reed had 15 in the second half, and the Colonials never trailed again.
“My teammates, they just kept talking to me throughout the game, kept motivating me saying we need you to score so we can win this game, so pick your head up and just continue to to play your game, we’re going to be fine and that’s exactly what I did,” Reed said.
Jones (21), Prior (20), and Reed (19) led the way as they had for most of the season for Robert Morris, although there were some big speed bumps when the Colonials finished 4-8 in non-conference play and at one point lost four of six in NEC play which coincided with a Lucky Jones suspension.
But Robert Morris did what you’re supposed to do in a one-bid league: play your best basketball when it matters most.
“In the second half, we had fun,” Toole said. “Guys were clapping. Guys were smiling. Guys were worrying about each other. Guys were there for each other. We had a couple of charge takes in the second half. We had some big rebounds and deflections guys covering up every single opportunity that North Florida had to take a shot and another one of our defenders were there. And that’s how you have to play the game.”
It was the first NCAA win of any kind since 2008 for the NEC and the conference was in danger of losing a play-in game for the third straight year. Although Robert Morris had posted NIT wins over Kentucky and St. John’s the last two postseasons, it was also a big confidence booster for the league, which improved to 4-33 all-time in the NCAA Tournament.
“Noreen Morris, the commissioner, was hard on me about continuing to play. I relayed that to the guys and that’s all it took,” Toole joked.
Next up, of course, is the monumental task of top-seeded Duke and Jahlil Okafor Friday night in Charlotte. But the school seemed pretty optimistic and why not?
“I love Robert Morris,” Jones said. “Our coaches put in a lot of work. They know the scouting report. They make sure we know the plays inside out and we know their tendencies. So we just gotta go out there and believe in ourselves, have confidence, have fun, and see what happens.”