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The Hidden Upset

Courtesy: ODU Athletics
         
Release: November 20, 2006
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Nov. 20, 2006

The calm before the storm: McDonough at 5 p.m. Sunday. Luke Winn/SI

WASHINGTON -- It was Sunday afternoon on the Georgetown campus when Brandon Johnson and his Old Dominion teammates got their first look inside the barn-like relic that is 2,500-seat McDonough Arena. Before their pre-game shootaround began, Johnson remembers asking no one in particular, "Wait, this is where the Hoyas play their home games?"

To the Monarchs, a Colonial Athletic Association team that calls a 8,424-seat building home, this seemed like a strange setting for the No. 8 team in the nation -- a Big East powerhouse, no less -- to be playing host. So why were they there? The Hoyas moved out of the 54-year-old McDonough in 1980-81, first to play in Landover, Md., and now at the Verizon Center downtown, but they've made a point to play on campus at least once each season in the John Thompson III era. Seeing that this was undoubtedly the biggest game on ODU's schedule, though ... coach Blaine Taylor offered Johnson & Co. an answer that was both factual and motivational:

"Coach informed us that Georgetown only scheduled two games in this place -- rather than the Verizon Center -- all year: us and Winston-Salem State," Johnson said. "He said they usually just use this as a practice gym. What they didn't know was, we all love practice!"

Johnson uttered those words amid a cramped-but-jubilant Monarchs locker room in the bowels of McDonough, where minutes earlier a few reporters (myself included) had walked into the crossfire of a celebratory water-bottle fight. ODU had reason to party: the 75-62 upset it had just pulled off over the Hoyas stands, after Oral Roberts' win over No. 3 Kansas on Nov. 15, as the second-biggest stunner of this young season. Monarchs senior forward Arnaud Dahi (15 points, six rebounds) said the sold-out crowd of mostly rabid Georgetown students had fostered an "us-against-the-world atmosphere" in the intimate gym, where the Hoyas hadn't lost since 1982.

This game should go down as The Hidden Upset. It featured all the emotion of an NCAA tournament Cinderella win, but was only witnessed by a minscule crowd -- and unlike Oral Roberts' feat, it wasn't on TV. (Admittedly, I made the trip because the McDonough scene would be a rare treat; I didn't expect the Monarchs, who were picked to finish fourth in the CAA, to go all George Mason on Georgetown.) Said Taylor, "You are a little envious [of the other upsets]. We're all human, we sit home and watch TV and see the highlights. We just beat a ranked team with a tremendous reputation -- and since people won't be able to see it, this is going to leave a lot of them scratching their heads and saying, 'I wonder how that happened?'"

As a member of the lucky 2,500, it's my duty to take you beyond what's already in the AP recap. Prior to the game, the last message Taylor wrote on the whiteboard was "FINISH THE JOB." Just a week earlier, the Monarchs (4-1) blew a chance to knock off Clemson in the final of the Cox Communications Classic in Norfolk, Va., losing 74-70, and Taylor didn't want a similar late-game fade to occur in D.C. What happened instead was an improbable surge: After trailing by four at half, ODU used a 21-3 run to outscore the Hoyas 48-31 in the second.

Point guard Drew Williamson said Taylor had also stressed that, "If we can outrebound them, we'll be able to win." That seemed like an impossible task against the Hoyas' NBA-caliber front line of Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green, but the Monarchs used a heroic team-rebounding effort -- nine players with between two and six boards -- to win that battle 35-28. ODU was especially opportunistic on the offensive end, grabbing 15 offensive boards to Georgetown's seven.

Green, the Hoyas' star forward, had a glaringly poor stat line of just two points, three rebounds and three turnovers before fouling out in 25 minutes. "When he's off, we more than likely will be off," said Thompson. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out."

The thing that did baffle Georgetown (2-1), though, was the 1-3-1 matchup zone the Monarchs switched to in the second half. They opened the game in man-to-man, Taylor's bread-and-butter, before switching to a 2-3 that kept them within striking distace of the Hoyas. The second zone was ODU's ambush move, as Taylor said he hadn't used it all year. It dedicated a man to Hibbert (who finished with 17 points) in the lane and, in place of smaller guards, used 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Jonathan Adams at the top to stop Georgetown's high-post feeds. It only further exposed the Hoyas' inability to stroke it from long range: they shot 3-of-10 in the second half and finished 6-of-19 (31.6 percent) for the game. The Monarchs, meanwhile, lit up the gym by hitting 6-of-9 of their second-half treys.

The X-factor that pushed ODU over the top was its veteran composure. Down the stretch the Monarchs relied on a dual point-guard lineup of Williamson, a senior, and Johnson, a junior; together they finished with a combined 23 points, 11 assists and just two turnovers. While Georgetown had eight second-half giveaways, ODU had just two, and get this -- they didn't commit a single turnover for the final 15:47.

Only one Monarch lost his cool for a few moments: Lithuanian senior Valdas Vasylius was T'ed up with 16:25 remaining for talking trash to Hibbert. ("I didn't curse, I was just saying 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' to him after I hit that 3," Vasylius explained). Despite being showered with raucous chants of "a--hole" by the Georgetown crowd for the remainder of the game, Vasylius rebounded to score 14 key second-half points and play a major role in the win.

On the heels of George Mason's storybook run to the Final Four, Sunday's upset is the latest blow struck by a CAA team against one of college basketball's elite. The small ODU section, about 40 strong, showed its conference pride by breaking into a "C-A-A" chant in the final minutes (it was met with an "N-I-T" chant by the Hoya students, who later filed out in a somber mood). But really, how could anyone have seen this coming?

The Monarchs were more primed to do something like this last year, when, led by stars Alex Loughton (13.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Isaiah Hunter (14.3 ppg), they finished 24-10 and went to the semifinals of the NIT. Without their two leading scorers, they were afterthoughts in the CAA behind Hofstra, George Mason and Drexel heading into 2006-07. "Last year we came in with the bulls-eye," said Williamson. "Now that we've lost Alex and Isaiah, we have to find the identity of this team."

And that new identity? "We're still trying to figure it out," he said. "This was our first big game together."

The drenched crowd in the locker room was more intent on figuring out what, if any, celebration would be waiting for them back in Norfolk -- a three-and-half-hour bus ride away. "I think," said Dahi, wearing a devious grin and attempting to speak for all of the Monarchs, "that we're all going to do our homework, and get ready for class tomorrow!"

At that, the rest of McDonough's party-crashers broke up laughing.

The scene in the McDonough Arena stands, a half hour before tipoff. Luke Winn/SI

posted by Luke Winn | View comments | Add a comment 11/18/2006 12:28:00 AM Early Returns: Kevin Durant

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