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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Won Conference USA Regular-Season Basketball Title With a Ton of Heart, Grit and Determination

By Harry Minium

Old Dominion's basketball team is headed for a quality postseason tournament regardless of what happens the rest of the season.

The Monarchs guaranteed they'll go dancing in March by holding off Texas-San Antonio 65-64 late Thursday night to claim their first Conference USA regular-season title since joining the far-flung league in 2013-2014. ODU hadn't won a regular-season title since 2010, when the Monarchs were in the Colonial Athletic Association.

There was no cutting down the nets, and there won't be a trophy, but the victory gave ODU C-USA's automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament.

ODU (23-6) could still advance to the NCAA tournament by winning the Conference USA tournament in Frisco, Texas, March 13-16. But in case they stub their toes there, they're headed to the postseason regardless.

Thursday's game, televised nationally by the CBS Sports Network, was a physical, defensive battle that was not a thing of beauty. As is often the case with UTSA, this one came down to the final seconds.

Xavier Green, who had 14 points for ODU, made one of two foul shots with 8.4 seconds left to give ODU a 65-62 lead. Instead of going for three, UTSA's Jhivvan Jackson drove inside the lane and made a two-pointer with .9 seconds left. ODU inbounded the ball and ran out the clock.

ODU often had long streaks without scoring, and the Monarchs made just 6 of 12 foul shots in the second half.

"It wasn't easy. We knew it wasn't going to be easy. It was ugly as heck," coach Jeff Jones said. "But we kept telling them to stick together, stick together. Don't get frustrated.

"At times they were on the verge of getting frustrated, but they hung in there."

The Monarchs gained a measure of revenge for a 74-73 loss at UTSA last month, when they blew an 18-point lead and missed three shots in the final nine seconds. Take away that loss and ODU would have a 13-game winning streak. ODU had lost in all three previous trips to UTSA.

"I knew UTSA had a great team," Jones said. "But I felt good about our team. I didn't sense any carryover or anything lingering from our last game Our guys were excited to come here and lace it up and get another chance at them in this building.

"But our guys really wanted to win the regular-season championship tonight, and maybe they were a little bit tight."

This has been a roller-coaster year for ODU. In October, the players learned that Jones' prostate cancer, for which he'd had surgery a few years ago, had returned.

It has been controlled by treatment, and Jones is coaching with as much energy and passion as ever. But players acknowledge it was a tough day when Jones told them.

"He's worked just as hard this year as he has in all my four years here. Maybe even harder," said guard Ahmad Caver, who had 13 points.

If anything, Jones' condition seemed to bring the team closer together, even if that wasn't evident at the start.

ODU lost three of its first five games, including a 56-51 setback to Oregon State in a neutral-court tournament in which the Beavers outscored the Monarchs 14-2 in the final minutes. A victory would have propelled ODU into games with other Power 5 teams and might have improved its strength of schedule.

But then ODU began to jell. In late November the Monarchs rallied from a 17-point first-half deficit to upended archrival VCU. In December, they rallied to upset then-No. 25 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

In January came what appeared to be a disaster of a game against Western Kentucky, in which the Hilltoppers took a 21-0 lead. The Monarchs kept their cool, rallied and won by three points.

And ODU is unbeaten in February.

The Monarchs have been winning close games with a ton of intensity and coolness under fire. They've often made up for shooting lapses with gritty defense and always seem to make big shots when they need them.

Yet in spite of the upset of the ACC's Syracuse, ODU's strength of schedule lacks heft. It ranks in the bottom half of Division I, according to most computer rankings. If there are upsets in Power 5 tournaments, which is sure to happen, the Monarchs likely would be on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament if they don't win the C-USA tournament.

While an NIT bid should be considered a measure of success for any mid-major program, it's clear the Monarchs want more.

"It's great to win the regular season," said B.J. Stith, who led ODU with 16 points. "But coming into this season, that wasn't our main goal."

The Monarchs host Southern Miss on Wednesday in their final home game before closing the regular-season next Saturday at UAB.

Southern Miss will be the final home game for Stith and Caver, seniors who have been at ODU for four seasons, and for Elbert Robinson III, the 7-1 transfer from LSU who has played a limited, but key, role for a team that needed help inside.

ODU has won seven games in a row, 12 of its last 13 and 21 of its last 24. And should the Monarchs to win their final two regular-season games and beat a couple of teams in the C-USA tournament, they could play their way onto the NCAA tournament bubble.

Jones says his team's only conceivable path to an at-large bid is to win out and get to the league final, and that's all they're focused on.

"That's a whole lot of ifs," he said. "Let's hope we can be in that situation and see what happens.

"I think what a lot of people in the media write is irrelevant. It's up to the people on the NCAA tournament committee. Committee members decide everything regardless of what people write or say.

"The only way we can influence them at all is to keep winning and try to make their job hard. Or we can make their job easy and fall.

"I'd prefer to make their job hard."

A little history of ODU's regular-season titles

ODU's first regular-season basketball title came 50 years ago, when Sonny Allen and his fast-break, high-scoring Monarchs won the Mason-Dixon League.

The Monarchs went on to win the 1969 league tournament, beating Baltimore in the final, and earn their first berth into the NCAA Division II tournament, where they lost to Oglethorpe and Norfolk State at NSU's Gill Gymnasium.

Thursday's title was the 12th regular-season crown for ODU, if you count two years in the ECAC-South when teams were seeded on power rankings instead of records. Prior to 1962, ODU was an independent.

ODU's 12 regular-season titles:

MASON DIXON CONFERENCE (Division II)

1968-1969 (21-7), coach Sonny Allen, beat Baltimore in final; lost to Oglethorpe, Norfolk State in NCAA Division II tournament

ECAC SOUTH (Division I)

League didn't play a real round-robin schedule, but ODU was top seed twice

1979-80 (25-5), coach Paul Webb, beat Navy in ECAC final; lost to UCLA in NCAA

1980-81 (18-10), coach Paul Webb, lost to Richmond in ECAC final; lost to Georgia in NIT

SUN BELT CONFERENCE (Division I)

1982-83 (19-10), coach Paul Webb, lost to ECU in Sun Belt final; beat VCU, lost to Notre Dame in NIT

1985-86 (23-8), coach Tom Young, lost to Jacksonville in Sun Belt final; beat W.Va., lost to Duke in NCAA

COLONIAL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION (Division I)

1992-93 (21-8) coach Oliver Purnell, lost to ECU in ECAC tournament; beat VCU, lost to Miami-Ohio in NIT

1993-94 (21-10) coach Oliver Purnell, lost to JMU in CAA final; beat Manhattan, lost to Bradley in NIT

1994-95 (21-12), coach Jeff Capel, beat JMU in CAA final; beat Villanova, lost to Tulsa in NCAA

1996-97 (22-11), coach Jeff Capel, beat JMU in CAA final; lost to New Mexico in NCAA

2004-05 (28-6), coach Blaine Taylor, beat VCU in CAA final; lost to Michigan State in NCAA

2009-10 (27-9), coach Blaine Taylor, beat W&M in CAA final; beat Notre Dame, lost to Baylor in NCAA

CONFERENCE USA (Division I)

2018-2019 (23-6), coach Jeff Jones; postseason record TBA.

Statistics courtesy of former ODU sports information director Carol Hudson

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