ODU is going dancing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 8 seasons

ODU held off Western Kentucky, 62-56, Saturday night in the Ford Center at The Star to claim its first Conference USA basketball title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of ODU Athletics)

The longest drought in Old Dominion basketball history is finally over. Years of heartbreak, of last-second defeats and gut-wrenching losses are finished.

For the first time since 2011, the Monarchs are going dancing.

ODU held off Western Kentucky, 62-56, Saturday night in the Ford Center at The Star to claim its first Conference USA basketball title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Monarchs (26-8) won the championship game in typical fashion. They knocked the more talented Hilltoppers back with their physical defense, and got just enough offense to win what until the final few minutes was a nip and tuck game.

It was a triumphant night for coach Jeff Jones, who claimed his 497th career victory in a season when he coached magnificently while also battling prostate cancer.

When appraised of the depth of Jones’ disease, former U.Va. coach Pete Gillen, the color commentator for the CBS Sports Network broadcast, said that Jones “was a very courageous guy. He’s done an amazing job.”

ODU players storm the court after winning the Conference USA championship. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of ODU Athletics)
ODU players storm the court after winning the Conference USA championship. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of ODU Athletics)

Jones choked up after the game. When asked on TV why, he said: “There’s too much. We don’t have enough time,” he said choking up again,

“It’s a great feeling. I’m just trying to hold it together right now. We’ve got great kids.

“They play so hard. They care for one another.

“We told them we had 40 minutes to go where we wanted to go all season.”

ODU will learn its opponent on the NCAA tournament selection show Sunday night at 6, when players gather with coaches and fans at the Mitchum Basketball Performance Center Center.

Doors to the public open at 5:30.

This was a tournament of close finishes for ODU. Ahmad Caver made a 3-pointer in the final seconds to push the Monarchs past Louisiana Tech in the quarterfinals. Then in Friday’s semifinals, Xavier Green made a running shot in a 2-point victory over UAB.

Green was again the hero for ODU in the championship game. He scored 9 points in a row in one stretch of a back and forth second half. The clincher came when he made a fallaway 3-pointer with 1:34 left, as the 30-second shot was at one second, to give the Monarchs a 54-48 lead. From there, the Monarchs maintained control.

Green finished with 16 points and was named the tournament Most Valuable Player. Caver joined him on the all-tournament team.

Xavier Green was named Conference USA tournament MVP. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of ODU Athletics)
Xavier Green was named Conference USA tournament MVP. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of ODU Athletics)

ODU last went to the NCAA tournament in 2010-2011, when the Monarchs twice defeated VCU during the regular season, including the Colonial Athletic Association championship game.

ODU fell to Butler, 60-58, in the NCAA tournament on a last-second put back of a missed shot. VCU would go on to the Final Four. Butler went on to the National Championship game.

It was the fourth NCAA tournament bid in seven seasons under coach Blaine Taylor in what was ODU’s most successful run of basketball success ever.

The eight years since have been ODU’s longest streak in Division I without an NCAA tournament bid.

That’s in part because in 2013, ODU joined the 14-team Conference USA, which is a one-bid league at a time when few mid-major schools claim at-large tournament bids.

Twice, ODU was on the cusp of NCAA tournament bids, and both times, they were denied by C-USA tournament losses to Middle Tennessee.

In 2015, ODU needed a victory or two in the C-USA tournament to claim an at-large bid, but lost to MTSU in the first round. ODU was one of the first four teams left out of the NCAA.

A year later, ODU won three games in three days, but then fell to MTSU by two points in the championship game when a last-second shot fell short.

Now, the drought is finally over.

After the game, Jones sat off to the side and watched as his players celebrated.

“I loved seeing the joy in their faces, and knowing how daggone hard they worked all year,” he said.

“We can be a mess on the offensive end. But they never allowed that to affect them. We always continue to fight, we never give up. That’s what has allowed us to get through as many close games as we have this year.

“We knew it was going to be a battle. We knew it would be like this. But our guys didn’t blink.”

ODU's basketball players celebrate winning the Conference USA championship. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of ODU Athletics)
ODU’s basketball players celebrate winning the Conference USA championship. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of ODU Athletics)

ODU’s game plan was fairly simple. The Monarchs had to be physical against WKU enter Charles Bassey, the C-USA freshman and defensive player of the year.

WKU, meanwhile, tried to force ODU to make outside shots, and often double-teamed C-USA Player of the Year B.J. Stith, and put a ton of pressure on point guard Ahmad Caver.

Elbert Robinson III, a graduate transfer from LSU, played a key role in shutting down Bassey. In one two-play stretch, Robinson blocked a Bassey shot and threw in a hook shot for ODU. Later he, he took a charge from Bassey and fall with a loud thump on the floor.

Bassey finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, but thanks to Robinson, Dajour Dickens and Kalu Ezipke, who shared time guarding him.

“Elbert picked a hell of a time to play his best game of the season,” Jones said.

Stith had been mired in a shooting slump, but made two of his first three jump shots in the second half, the second which gave ODU a 34-29 lead with 16:22 left.

But then came nearly a 6-minute ODU scoring drought, and WKU retook the lead, mostly with Bassey on the bench. Lamonte Brearden made two free throws with 12:10 left to give the Hilltoppers a 35-34 lead.

But Xavier Green then went on his scoring streak to send the Monarchs dancing.

“I knew I had to make plays, I knew I had to do something,” Green said. “They were all ganging up on Ahmad and B.J.

“I had to step up.”

So did Robinson, who transferred from LSU after not playing at all last season.

Robinson, a native of nearby Garland, Texas, had about 30 family members in the stands, who cheered loudly each time his name was announced.

He roomed with Caver and both said they could not sleep Friday night.

“I knew what we wanted to accomplish, and put it all out on the line for my teammates,” he said. “When I came on my visit to Old Dominion, when I talked to Ahmad and B.J., that’s what we talked about, getting to the NCAA tournament. And we did it.”

Ahmad said Robinson knew “that he had to play a big role tonight, and he did.

“His last school gave up on him and we didn’t. I’m very proud of him.”

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.