DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — Even down by six points at half and by 13 early in the second half, Robert Morris never forgot that the NCAA Tournament was supposed to be fun.
Lucky Jones scored 21 points, including a key free throw, Rodney Pryor had 20 and Marcquise Reed 19 to lead the Colonials to an 81-77 victory over North Florida on Wednesday night in the First Four.
“We made sure coming into halftime that we remembered this is a blessing to be out here, to enjoy the moment,” Pryor said with a wide grin. “Guys had their heads down and things like that, but we reiterated going out and having fun and enjoying it.”
Part of the reason they had so much fun was a second half without a turnover, plus completely stifling the high-scoring, perimeter-minded Ospreys down the stretch.
“At halftime we let (the players) be for about 5 or 6 minutes, and I think they figured it out,” said coach Andy Toole, avoiding a fire-and-brimstone speech. “As we came in as coaches in the locker room, you know they looked like they understood what they needed to do.”
The Colonials (20-14), who won the Northeast Conference Tournament to get into the field as a 16 seed, now meet top-seeded Duke in the second round on Friday in Charlotte.
They failed to score for 4:31 of the first half, putting themselves in a hole. Down by 13 early in the second half after a pair of Beau Beech 3s, they turned the tables by shutting out North Florida for 4:44 to get back in the game.
“We were in a drought, which is unlike us,” said coach Matthew Driscoll. “Giving up 52 points in a half is unlike us, not close to what we’ve been doing. You’ve got to give Robert Morris a ton of credit.”
With the teams tied, Reed — a freshman — drove the lane and spun in a left-handed layup and was fouled with 3:49 left. He missed the free throw, but Jones was there to tip in the miss for a 70-66 lead.
Pryor then added a 15-foot jumper and Kavon Stewart hit a free throw to push the lead to seven with 2 minutes left.
The Ospreys got within 78-76 with 10 seconds left, but Stewart made two more foul shots. With the lead at three and less than a second left, Jones — the Colonials’ third-leading scorer who comes off the bench — made a free throw to clinch it.
Beech finished with 28 points for the Ospreys (23-12), champs of the Atlantic Sun Tournament who were making their first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
BEAU’S A BEECH: Beech more than doubled his 12.5 points a game average. But when it mattered the most — in the second half when the Colonials’ defense tightened — he didn’t have a field goal over the last 11:18.
“They kind of switched to a matchup zone, kind of a man-to-man,” said Beech, who was 6 of 10 on 3s. “It limited my 3-point attempts. But we had clean looks the whole second half. It was turnovers that killed us the most.”
Ah, the turnovers. North Florida had 19 to only five by the Colonials, who held a 21-5 advantage on points off mistakes.
BEDEVILED: As the final seconds ticked off, jubilant BobbyMo fans chanted, “We want Duke! We want Duke!”
Now they’ve got them. What’ll they do with them though?
“I like our chances,” said Jones. “It’s a team game, no matter who they have on their team, no matter how many TV games they have. I love Robert Morris. We just gotta go out there and believe in ourselves, have confidence, have fun and see what happens.”
MISFIRING: North Florida, averaging 76 points a game while shooting 47 percent, couldn’t get a basket in the waning moments against Robert Morris’ stingy D.
The Ospreys’ last field goal came with 5:30 left; they hit 13 of 14 free throws the rest of the way, the only miss an intentional one by Beech.
Robert Morris: The Colonials were making their eighth trip to the NCAA, but first since 2010. Their last trip was brief, but memorable.
The 15th-seeded Colonials nearly knocked off No. 2-seeded Villanova in the opening round in Providence. They led 55-47 with 4:19 left, but mistakes down the stretch resulted in a 73-70 overtime loss.
North Florida: For financial reasons (hefty guarantees to play at bigger schools) the Ospreys played 13 of their first 16 games on the road. They traveled to nine states and Mexico this season.
Robert Morris: Top-seeded Duke (29-4) on Friday at 7:10 p.m. in Charlotte.
North Florida: The three top scorers are back, with the major loss Nesbitt, a 6-6 senior.
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