Senior Eli Pepper had 20 points, 11 rebounds and set the program’s NCAA era rebounding record to help the Lipscomb men’s basketball team take down North Florida, 81-66, on Wednesday night in its ASUN Conference home opener at Allen Arena.
“Eli was the guy for us tonight,” Lipscomb head coach Casey Alexander said. “Nobody has any idea how valuable Eli is for us. His readiness in practice every day, the way he communicates and goes about his business, the way he shows up, how dependable he is, it’s a big part of our team and our success.”
At the 15:05 mark of the first half, Pepper reeled in a missed UNF three-pointer for his 841st career rebound, moving him past Adnan Hodzic for the most-career boards in the school’s NCAA era.
“It feels awesome (to break the record), but that’s not what it has ever been about,” Pepper said. “It’s about doing better than we did last year.”
Garrison Mathews, the ASUN’s third-leading scorer, finished with a game-high 25 and pulled down seven boards in his return after missing last Saturday’s game at Jacksonville. Fellow senior Rob Marberry had 12 points and seven rebounds for the Bisons (11-4, 2-0 ASUN), who shot 51 percent and turned 19 UNF turnovers into 20 points.
Playing their first home game in 19 days, the Bisons came out sloppy with the ball and needed roughly 13 minutes to shake off the rust. Down four with under eight minutes to play in the half, they outscored the Ospreys 22-5 over the last 7:15 to cruise into the half up 41-28.
“Early I didn’t feel like we had enough mojo, we were ready to play, but we didn’t have anything extra,” Alexander said. “We weren’t trying to win possessions defensively. We weren’t trying to be the aggressor and make the hustle plays, and to North Florida’s credit, they did.
“When that flipped, the score flipped as well. At the first media timeout of the game, they had scored 14 points. From then on, they only scored 14 points the rest of the half. Our defense picked it up.”
The aforementioned senior trio combined for 36 points, 15 rebounds and helped the team to a 55 percent clip in the opening half.
Less than four minutes into the second period, Lipscomb got buckets from Kenny Cooper and Michael Buckland, and a pair of free throws from Marberry to grab its largest lead of the night at 48-31.
JT Escobar hit a flurry of second-half 3-pointers for the Ospreys, including one with 4:15 remaining to trim Lipscomb’s lead down to 70-62 and give the visitors from Jacksonville, Florida a boost of confidence.
Following the under-4 media timeout when Alexander clearly let his team know in the huddle he was not happy with how they were playing, Mathews checked back in and quickly put to bed any comeback hopes for North Florida.
The ASUN Preseason Player of the Year cashed in seven of the first nine points out of the break, including a dagger with 1:47 to play that pushed the lead back to 15. Nate Moran iced the win with a pair of makes from the charity stripe 30 seconds later.
“Every time UNF threatened, Gary found a way to get us a basket, everyone knows that’s what he does best,” Alexander said. “Offensively I felt more in control, even though I wasn’t playing. I just felt better because he was out there.
“One thing that we know, when he is on the court, he’s going to play. He’s done it for years through injuries.”
The Bisons extended their home winning streak against ASUN opponents to six games. It was their largest win over North Florida since defeating the Ospreys 79-55 on Jan. 16, 2010.
• Lipscomb shot 51 percent for the game, including 12 of 22 from long distance (55 percent).
• UNF shot 39 percent and hit 10 of 35 from 3-point land (29 percent).
• The Ospreys, who didn’t attempt a free throw until in the first 35 minutes, hit 4 of 5 from the line.
• Pepper earned his third double-double of the season and his second in a row. With 20 points he finished two shy of matching a career high.
• In the last two outings, Pepper has showcased his range by knocking down 6 of 9 attempts from 3-point land.
• Mathews knocked down five threes for the third time in six games. He has 11 treys combined in his last two games at Allen Arena.
• Mathews is 17 points shy of becoming Lipscomb’s career scoring leader in the NCAA era. Hodzic is the current leader with 2,002.
• Cooper scored eight points, while Moran added seven and Buckland chipped in six.
Lipscomb stays home on Saturday to welcome the Stetson Hatters to Allen Arena for a 4 p.m. tip on ESPN+.
“We will get a couple of good days of practice and be ready to go,” Alexander said.