Sunday, 2:45 a.m. – Here's to a heck of a ride
By Brendan O'Hallarn
There's a crushing finality to college basketball season, for all except a select few teams lucky enough to win a post-season tournament.
A few hours ago, I was sitting directly behind the Old Dominion bench, and our fans were going bonkers. The Monarchs had made a stirring run, from 14 points down, to take the lead on the favored Baylor Bears in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in New Orleans Arena.
At a timeout, Coach Blaine Taylor sat down in front of his starters, and simply smiled. He didn't say a word, just looked each player right in the eyes, one by one. Then he put out a fist, and gently gave a bump to each of them.
A few hours later, I'm on the tarmac at Norfolk Airport, looking around for my luggage with the players, coaches, support staff, band and cheer teams, and donors. Our run is done; Baylor bested us 76-68.
After the game, I watched jubilant Baylor players and coaches hug on their way into the locker room down the hall from us after ending our season. Our team door remained closed for a long time while players and coaches shared time alone together. I stood silently with school officials, many who had watery eyes. While we waited, the high-powered Kentucky team came out of their locker-room, beginning to dance to the court (they actually danced) for their game against Wake Forest.
Tournament life grinds on. Sadly, we're not part of it. But this season has been the most incredible sporting experience of my life. That's thanks to 13 young men who poured their guts out on the court for Old Dominion all season.
Thanks to Thursday's upset win over the Irish, I got to "Live Like a Monarch" for one more game day. And with five minutes to go, it looked like the party might keep going next week in Houston. In no order whatsoever, here's some things I saw and soaked in on Saturday...
Actually, we'll start on Friday night. I've struck up a friendship with Ted Alexander, ODU's great play-by-play guy. We headed out for dinner on Friday. Neither of us are rich, and both of us were tired, so we just looked for a little hole in the wall place. We sat on a patio, which was just a cordoned off section of sidewalk, and ordered our food. After sitting and chatting for 20 minutes I looked around the umbrella at the side of the building across the street. "Hey, look at this!" I said to Ted. They were projecting the television coverage of the NCAA Tournament onto the wall. So we could sit on a patio AND watch hoops.
Kentucky has a very good team this year. They demolished Wake Forest 90-60 after our game. All day, I ran into small groups of blue clad fans and talked hoops, asking to "borrow" them as fans for our game before the Wildcats took the court. They agreed, and a bunch of them talked about what a nice team we have this year. Felt good.
On my way out for breakfast, I ran into two nice ladies who had come to New Orleans for a reunion of sorts. One lives in Cincinnati, the other in North Carolina, but they knew each other from their time in the Big Easy. We enjoyed beignets and caf? au lait from Cafe du Monde, and they asked me all sorts of questions about Old Dominion University. They'd heard about our win, and just wanted to know: Is it a good school? Do you like working there? Are there nice people? Yes, yes and yes.
I showered back at the hotel after getting powder sugar all over me eating those beignets. I wish I'd waited in the lobby just a tiny bit longer. Two buses of students who left Norfolk at 3 p.m. on Friday arrived at the hotel, and I missed the explosion of Monarch pride as the two groups of fans met up.
The Monarch fan party across the street from the hotel was magical. The band and cheer teams performed with gusto, a large group of fans took pictures and shared memories of their week in New Orleans so far. Then the party got a turbo-boost when a big group of students who'd come back from exploring heard the ODU Fight Song and came running across the street to join the festivities. What a way to get ready for the game.
The game didn't start quite as we'd hoped it would. At one point, it was 10-1. But then we got a turnover and Kent Bazemore soared for an alley-oop pass from Darius James. Ted Alexander had been joking with him earlier about muffing an alley-oop in the Notre Dame game. No mistake here. Boom! Later in the game, Kent got out on a fast break and floated toward the basket, looking like he would do a short layup. At the very last second he elevated and rolled his wrist to dunk the ball. Our fans lost their minds.
Ben Finney has been the toughest guy all year for me to get good material to write about. He's a good guy, but he's very reserved around people he doesn't know well, possibly wary about sharing too much. But watching Ben on the court tells me more about him than any non-revealing interview. He hit his third three pointer of the second half to tie the game at 45-45. Our fans roared, and he ran back down the court pointing into our packed section, as if to say "That was for you guys! Thank you."
No, thank you, Ben.
(And Gerald. And Marsharee. And Darius. And Frank. And Keyon. And Kent. And Trian. And Marquel. And Chris. And Nick. And Josh. And Anton. And the coaches and staff and every fan of the ODU Monarchs who have made this such a memorable year.)