Minium: ODU vs. WKU is the Championship Game That Conference USA Deserved
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
For the most part, the Conference USA basketball tournament has been a place of heartache for Old Dominion University. There have been so many narrow defeats and frustrating performances.
A missed shot here or a turnover there and ODU often lost a game that might have meant a spot in the NCAA tournament or the NIT.
Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. ET, the Monarchs could put those demons behind them, when they take on Western Kentucky for the C-USA tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament in the Ford Center at The Star.
The game will be shown on the CBS Sports Network, and while that’s not quite ESPN, it hits nearly 60 million homes, and that means millions will watch the Monarchs play.
Regardless of who wins, this is the championship game the league deserved to have.
ODU (25-8) was the regular-season champion, a defensive titan that has mastered the art of winning close games – the Monarchs won 11 by six or fewer points.
WKU (20-13) has the league’s best talent, and after injuries and suspensions early on, finally began to jell at the right point, the second half of the season. WKU finished second in the regular-season to the Monarchs.
ODU has the league’s two best players in Ahmad Caver and B.J. Stith. Western Kentucky has by far the league’s best pro prospect in Charles Bassey, a 6-foot-11, freshman center who would be an early-round pick if he elects to go to the NBA next season.
Xavier Green scored 21 points against Western Kentucky the last time the teams met in Norfolk.
ODU swept the Hilltoppers during the regular season, winning both in Norfolk.
Both previous games were physical, hard fought, entertaining games. Who can forget ODU giving up a 21-0 lead to WKU back on Jan. 5, and yet rallying to claim a 69-66 victory.
Xavier Green scored 21 points in late February as the Monarchs held off the Hilltoppers, 67-63, in Norfolk.
ODU will be attempting a little payback for last season, when WKU won twice during the regular season, and then knocked to Monarchs out of the league tournament.
Here's a quick history lesson on ODU in C-USA tournaments. Fast forward past the next few paragraphs if you can’t stand to bear it.
ODU joined the league in 2013-2014, when Jeff Jones was rebuilding the Monarchs after a 5-25 season in 2013. Middle Tennessee spanked the Monarchs, 62-48, in the first round of the tournament.
The Monarchs lost again to MTSU in the first round a year later, 2015, with a team that needed a couple of victories in the tournament to qualify for an NCAA at-large bid.
The following year ODU won three games in three days and faced MTSU in the 2016 finals, only to lose 55-53 when a last-second fell short. ODU accepted a bid to the Vegas 8 tournament, and defeated Oakland in the championship game, but from then on, determined he school would only accept bids from the NCAA and NIT.
ODU again lost a nail biter in 2017 to Marshall, 64-63, and did not go to postseason play.
ODU needed two or three C-USA tournament victories last season to secure a likely NIT bid, but lost to Western Kentucky, 57-49, in the second round. ODU was one of the last four teams not to make the NIT field.
I hesitate to venture a guess on who wins tomorrow, but ODU seems to be a team of destiny.
The Monarchs won, 57-56, against Louisiana Tech in the quarterfinals on Wednesday thanks to a fallaway 3-pointer by Ahmad Caver with 3.3 seconds left.
Xavier Green was the hero on Thursday against UAB, taking a slick pass from Caver and making a running, one-hander while he was being fouled. He made the foul shot and ODU won, 61-59.
This team always seems to win the close games, and with clutch performances for anyone on the team. And the ball seems to be bouncing its way. UAB appeared to have a player open for a breakaway layup after Green shot ODU into the lead, but the pass was just past his outstretched arms.
Aaron Carter's 9 points was a key on ODU's quarterfinal round victory over Louisiana Tech in the C-USA quarterfinals.
Against LA Tech, had it not been for Aaron Carver and his nine points, the Monarchs would have lost. Freshman Kalu Ezikpe came off the bench to score nine points and pull down five rebounds against UAB.
Neither has been a consistent scorer, but with Stith and Caver both in something of shooting slumps, ODU had to have contributions from guys who don’t score enough.
They also needed to make nearly all of their foul shots – they made 11 of 12, while the Blazers made just 6 of 13.
“That was the difference in the game,” Jones said.
I tried to pin Jones down on his emotional state as he enters a potentially historic game for his program.
Jones has coached as well as I’ve seen him coach in spite of battling prostate cancer. He smiled and fended off each question.
“I’m done with this one, and ready to move onto tomorrow night,” he said with a smile.
But later on, he let on that this indeed is a big game.
“They know what it means,” he responded when I asked him if he’ll talk to his players about going to the NCAA tournament.
“We’ll talk to them about getting ready and to be sure they’re ready to give their best effort.
“The thing I told them yesterday and again today, if you think it feels good to win two in a row, think about how good it will feel if we win three?”
Rhetorical question, of course. But for the fans, former players, coaches and administrators who have suffered through so much frustration, the answer is that it would feel pretty damn good.
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