JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Dante Williams got a chance to help, and he gave East Tennessee State a chance to win.
The little-used sophomore guard scored eight points during a short stretch in the second half as the Bucs struggled past North Florida 56-51 Saturday in an Atlantic Sun Conference basketball game.
The victory gave the Bucs (19-8, 13-2) a 2Â½-game lead in the A-Sun standings with three to play. They can clinch at least a tie for the regular-season title next Saturday with a win at Kennesaw State.
To reach that point, ETSU had to beat North Florida, a team that hadn't beaten a Division I opponent all season - but it wasn't easy.
ETSU missed 12 of its first 13 shots and was shooting at a 7.7 percent clip midway through the first half. For many of the Bucs, it never got better. The Ospreys (2-23, 0-14) packed their defense back in a tight zone and ETSU never got anything going from the outside.
Courtney Pigram finished as the Bucs' leading scorer with 12 points, but he was 2-for-16 from the field. Mike Smith, the team's other outside threat, was 1-for-9.
In all, ETSU finished with season lows in field goals (17) and shooting percentage (33.3). The Bucs were 5-of-19 from 3-point range.
"We just did a terrible job executing against their zone," ETSU senior forward Brad Nuckles said. "We shot the ball terribly from the outside. If we made a few from outside, then their forwards would have had to come out and the middle would have been open. But we didn't get much inside."
If it hadn't been for Williams, those numbers could have led to a loss. However, he came off the bench to score all eight of his points in a span of 1:07.
Williams' second 3-point basket left ETSU up 41-35 with 8:56 remaining. Although the Ospreys got within three in the final 1:24, they never could catch the Bucs.
"Dante gave us a big lift," ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. "We're always telling those guys that don't play a lot to stay ready because they'll have a chance to be hero. He was really a hero for us tonight. If he didn't come in and do what he did, we wouldn't have won that game."
Williams hadn't even made it off the bench in eight of the past 12 games. Most of his action has been during mop-up time, late in games already decided. But with the rest of the team acting as the gang who couldn't shoot straight, Williams stood out. He missed both of his shots in the first half before connecting on all three he tried after halftime.
"It felt good," Williams said. "The first half I came out and my shot wasn't on. Coach always tells me not to get down, to keep shooting. He got on me at halftime. He told me I have to deliver when I get in."
After Williams' heroics, Nuckles kept North Florida at bay by connecting on a pair of outside jumpers from the corner.
The Bucs could have iced the game at the foul line, but they missed 7 of 12 free throws in the final 1:08.
"I thought our guys did a great job with the game plan on defense," North Florida coach Matt Kilcullen said. "When we played them up there, I thought they ate us up inside. We really held them in check."
ETSU's defense held the Ospreys in check as well. North Florida shot 34 percent and scored two points fewer than its league-worst average.
"Defensively, I can't ask for much more," Bartow said.
James Grimball led North Florida with 15 points. He was 5-for-16 and had a couple of close-in shots roll off the rim in the final minute. Chris Timberlake added 14 before fouling out.
Pigram was ETSU's lone double-figure scorer. Andrew Reed finished with nine points, while Nuckles and Williams had eight apiece. Pigram had six assists during his tough shooting night.
The Bucs, who committed 27 turnovers in Thursday's loss at Jacksonville, turned over the ball 14 times and forced 20 by the Ospreys.