It was a magical season for the Old Dominion basketball team.
The Monarchs won at No. 25 Syracuse, spanked archrival VCU at home and swept three games, and the Conference USA championship, from a more talented Western Kentucky team.
And they did it all with a coach waging a courageous fight with prostate cancer.
But the magic ended late Thursday night for coach Jeff Jones and the Monarchs as they succumbed to third-seeded Purdue, 61-48, in a first-round NCAA game in the XL Center.
ODU (26-9) played hard, and went toe-to-toe physically with the taller and more talented Boilermakers (24-9). Yet in the end, the Big-Ten co-champion, which has gone to the Sweet 16 each of the last two seasons, played with more poise and a much sharper shooting eye.
ODU made just 17 of 66 shots, shooting 27 percent. But even with one of its worst offensive performances of the season, ODU managed to make it interesting in the game’s last six minutes.
ODU trailed by 20 points four minutes into the second half, but then mounted an unlikely comeback for an often offensive-challenged team.
Purdue led by 16, 53-37, with 5:50 left when ODU’s Dajour Dickens was fouled by Purdue center Matt Haarms, who picked up a quick technical foul when he protested.
B.J. Stith made two technical foul shots, and then Dickens two more foul shots (he was in the act of shooting when fouled), and just like that, the lead was down to 12.
Xavier Green when made a running scoop to cut it to 9 with 4:32 left.
But there just wasn’t enough gas in the tank for ODU to come all the way back. Although ODU continued to shut down Purdue offensively, the Monarchs missed five shots on their next three possessions, including two open 3-point shots.
“Everyone was trying,” Jones said. “You couldn’t ask for more from our guys in terms of their effort.
“Look, we were one wide open three from really putting the pressure on Purdue. As badly as we shot, we kept battling, we kept hanging in there. Late in the game, we still had a shot.
“But Purdue is the best team we’ve played this year and we just didn’t have enough offensively tonight.”
Carsen Edwards, the Purdue All-American, put the game away with a pair of foul shots with 1:40 left that pushed the lead back to 11. Edwards scored 26 points.
Point guard Ahmad Caver, the senior from suburban Atlanta, ended his ODU career with a inspired effort, leading ODU with 19 points. He played solid defense against Edwards, who made just 7 of 23 shots.
Stith, the Conference USA Player of the Year, didn’t shoot particularly well, making just 5 of 16, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Stith had 14 points and led ODU with 10 rebounds.
Stith said that even when ODU got down by 20, the Monarchs gathered during timeouts and vowed to never quit.
“As a team, we said we didn’t come this far just to lay down in the NCAA tournament, you know?” he said. “We fought all year. We fought to get to this point. So I felt that we really started to fight, and we really started to crawl our way back.
“But as coach said, the shots just didn’t fall in the stretch for us.”
Things began to come unglued for ODU early. Two minutes into the first half, Green, the Most Valuable Player in the Conference USA tournament, went to the bench with his second foul. He would not play again in a first half in which the Monarchs made just 8 of 32 shots, most of them makeable.
Even so, ODU trailed by just two, 21-19, after Caver swished a fallaway 3-pointer with 6:19 left.
Then the bottom fell out for ODU, which did not score again until nearly a minute into the second half.
Meanwhile, Trevion Williams made a layup, Haarms a dunk, Edwards swished a 3-pointer, Aaron Wheeler a driving layup and Eric Hunter Jr. two free throws to lift Purdue to a 32-19 lead.
“Ahmad kept us in the game in the first half,” Jones said.
It was the sixth game in a row that Stith didn’t shoot well. “It’s just one of those things” Jones said. “He kept working and we kept encouraging him to take good shots and he did.
“I was hoping Xavier would give us a lift in the second half. But he never found his rhythm.
“We got quality looks. If you want to want to beat a quality team like Purdue, you can’t shoot 27 percent. I don’t care how hard you play or how well you play defensively, you’ve got to be able to put the ball in the basket. We just weren’t good enough from an offensive standpoint.”
This was not supposed to be a championship season for ODU. The Monarchs lost two starters from last season, then suffered a late blow in the spring when center Trey Porter transferred to Nevada.
ODU’s coaches brought in a pair of transfers, centers Elbert Robinson III from LSU and Dajour Dickens from Providence, to plug the hole in the middle. They also got a ton of senior leadership from seniors Caver and Stith and won 14 games by six points or less.
The Monarchs seemed doomed in quarterfinal and semifinal C-USA tournament games against Louisiana Tech and UAB, but won on late jump shots from Caver and Green.
Green then scored 16 points in a 62-56 C-USA championship victory over Western Kentucky.
Jones, the former Virginia player and coach, became the feel-good story of the NCAA tournament. Local media chronicled Jones’ fight with prostate cancer, which he announced in September had returned after treatment in 2015. But the story went national this week, with USA Today and the Washington Post, among others, writing about Jones, and ESPN and CBS Sports also doing stories on Jones.
Jones vowed Wednesday night at an NCAA tournament press conference to return next season as ODU’s coach.
Win or lose against Purdue, Jeff Jones vows to return as ODU’s coach.
Jones gathered his players in the locker room and told them, as much as it hurt to lose to Purdue, it’s not Thursday’s loss that they will remember.
They will remember rallying from a 17-point deficit to beat VCU, allowing WKU to take a 21-0 lead and then rallying to beat the Hilltoppers, winning the C-USA regular-season and tournament titles and the closeness that came from playing for a team that overachieved.
“This will almost be an afterthought,” he said. “First and foremost, they’re going to remember the relationships they developed, the way this team came together and stayed together, they will remember the exciting games we won in Frisco and improbable wins when we were down by a bunch, and how we were able to keep hanging in there.
“As much as it hurts now, I told them that will go away and they will have great memories of this season and great relationships that will last a lifetime.”