Minium: ODU makes big shots under pressure against WKU and is one victory away from a Conference USA title
By Harry Minium
It wasn’t an artistic game. At times, Western Kentucky’s offense resembled the sleepy-eyed four-corners employed at the University of North Carolina by Dean Smith decades ago.
Both teams dug in for a defensive slugfest, and although it wasn’t a thing of beauty, there was a ton of pressure involved.
The game matched the top two teams in Conference USA in bonus play, the league's unique 4-game, round robin event designed to match the best against the best at the end of the season. No. 1 Old Dominion was playing at home. No. 2 Western Kentucky is the league's most talented team, and had a chip on its shoulders for various reasons.
"It was a championship-like game in which the team that won was going to have to make big plays," ODU coach Jeff Jones.
And ODU made all the big plays, and all the big shots it needed, to claim a 67-63 victory.
Yes, ODU upset No. 25 Syracuse on the road, and there was that memorable 17-point comeback victory over VCU as well. But this, ladies and gentlemen, was the biggest win this season to date for ODU.
The victory means ODU needs only to win at Texas-San Antonio on Thursday to claim the regular-season league title with two games still left to play. That would give ODU its first conference regular-season title since 2010, and more importantly, would guarantee the Monarchs a bid to the National Invitation Tournament regardless of what happens at the league tournament in Frisco, Texas.
The victory also all but guaranteed ODU one of four byes in the C-USA tournament as well.
ODU (22-6, 2-3 C-USA) has won six games in a row, 11 of its last 12 and 20 of its last 23. It's last loss? A 74-73 defeat at UTSA in which the Monarchs lost an 17-point lead and missed three shots in the last nine seconds.
Unless WKU and ODU play again in the Conference USA tournament, the Monarchs have swept the Hilltoppers for the first time since they joined C-USA in football and men’s basketball.
That has to be a big deal for athletic director Wood Selig, who came to ODU from WKU.
"Feeling great," he replied when I texted him.
Xavier Green, the sophomore from Williamsburg, scored a career-high 23 points Saturday at the Ted.
This game, as do most between WKU and ODU, came down to the wire.
WKU led, 63-60, with 1:25 left, after a 5-minute ODU scoreless streak when Xavier Green, the sophomore from Williamsburg, took a pass from point guard Ahmad Caver, who set a screen to give him an open 3-point shot.
Green swished the shot and the game was tied.
Green scored a career-high 22 points, and ODU needed every one of them.
“I know I had the spotlight on me,” he said. “I had to make that shot.”
He would make another that would put ODU ahead for good, but not until there were a lot of anxious moments. With the score tied and 44 second left, Charles Bassey, the 6-foot-11, 245-pound freshman from Western Kentucky, tried to make a layup.
The ball bounced out of bounds after he collided with ODU’s Dajour Dickens.
The refs went over to the replay screen to try and figure out what happened. It was a call that could have gone either way from what I saw. It could have been a foul, or it could have been a turnover.
After 3 or 4 tense minutes, they signaled ODU ball.
“To me it’s a very obvious foul. He got fouled,” coach Rick Stansbury told the Bowling Green Daily News.
Green then popped in a 2-point jump shot with 16 seconds left that gave ODU a 65-63 lead.
After a turnover by Bassey, WKU fouled B.J. Stith immediately, who responded by swishing two to give ODU a 4-point lead with eight seconds left.
WKU then missed a 3-pointer and then the celebration began.
“Xavier Green was the reason we won the game,” Stith said. “He tied the game with the big three-pointer, then he made the shot that put us ahead.
“Xavier Green came up big-time for us big time in at a crucial time of the season when we needed a big win.”
So did Stith, who scored 18 points in spite of twice rolling his ankle. He limped through parts of the game and appeared at his post-game interview with his ankle wrapped in ice.
"No way I was going to leave this game," he said. "Not Western Kentucky."
Jones said the game had a championship air about it.
“If you want to be a champion, this is the kind of game you have to win,” he said. “There was nothing about it that was easy.
“They shot 60 percent in the second half. It wasn’t because we played bad defense. They made difficult shots.
“There were two very good teams out there today, two teams that are extremely competitive. It really had a tournament feel to me.”
Even with ODU’s record, Jones realizes the chances of his team going to the NCAA tournament without winning the C-USA tournament are slim. In spite of the 22-6 record, ODU is ranked poorly in the NET ratings that the NCAA tournament committee will use to pick at-large teams.
He said he knows where ODU ranks only because his wife, Danielle Jones, tells him. And he expressed consternation that ODU isn't ranked higher.
“I look at the NET and teams ranked ahead of us that I just don’t get it,” he said. “You match our non-conference schedule to some people ahead of us and they don’t have the same wins we do.
“If we are to have any shot at an at-large bid, it will be because we finish really strong in the regular season and do well in the tournament.”
In some ways, you had to feel some sympathy for WKU.
The Hilltoppers have been through a meat grinder this season, losing players to suspensions and injuries, including a preseason Conference USA pick who left the program in December.
Stansbury missed the last four games after having back surgery. He returned Saturday but was in obvious pain. Earlier in the week, he lamented WKU’s position in bonus play.
“I’m trying to be nice,” he said, when asked about bonus play, and then listed all the reasons about how WKU got shafted.
His team was forced to begin bonus play with two road games, including the first against the league’s best team. WKU’s last two games will be at home, but while students are on spring break.
That means they won’t have much of a home-court advantage.
In the best efforts of Jason Chandler and Carolyn Crutchfield in ODU’s promotions office, I thought the crowd Saturday was a little disappointing. Just a little.
It was a good turnout. The 7,324 in attendance were into it in the final minutes of the game. The crowd was at times deafening.
It was a whiteout game and most fans wore white.
But at times, the crowd sat on its hands.
ODU plays its final home game on March 6 against Southern Miss. It will be senior day, the final home game for Stith and Caver.
More on Stith and Caver later, but for now, suffice it to say, their last game deserves a sellout crowd of full-throat-ed fans, as does a team that is so tantalizingly close to winning a championship.
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