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Minium: ODU has had two epic comebacks against Western Kentucky this season

January 07, 2019
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

There’s no question that the key to winning in college basketball is recruiting talented players. Without good big men to knock heads inside and tall, lanky guards who can defend and shoot well, no amount of coaching is going to win a championship.

But an often underrated factor is character. Do your players work hard? Do they like each other and sacrifice individual goals?

And do they have the courage to fight and scrap even when they’re down a ton of points?

Clearly, as we approach the midway point of the season, Old Dominion coach Jeff Jones not only has a talented team, but also one with a lot of heart.

Saturday night, ODU was two days removed from a devastating loss to Marshall. The Thundering Herd won on a last-second 3-pointer that ended an eight-game ODU winning streak.

Seven minutes into a showdown with Conference USA preseason favorite Western Kentucky, the Monarchs trailed 21-0.

ODU looked out of sorts, missing its first 12 shots. Meanwhile, WKU, clearly the most talented team in Conference USA, with victories over Wisconsin, West Virginia and Arkansas, was dominant.

“It looked like our confidence was shot,” Jones said.

Ahmad Caver had 18 points and 6 assists against WKU.

Guard Ahmad Caver recalls some Hilltoppers saying “let’s put them way” about six minutes into the game, when WKU led 15-0. Then Josh Anderson and Traveion Hollingsworth made back-to-back three-point plays.

Not since ODU began playing basketball in 1930 had the Monarchs come back from such a large deficit.

“They thought it was over,” Caver said. “But we knew we’d taken their best hit.

“Once we made a few shots, we got the fans involved and we knew we had a chance.”

Led by B.J. Stith (19 points, 12 rebounds) and Caver (18 points, six assists), ODU trimmed the deficit to two late in the first half, then took the lead for the first time, 52-51, with nine minutes left on a 3-pointer from Justice Kithcart.

Caver and Stith followed with 3-pointers on ODU’s next two possessions, giving the Monarchs a seven-point lead.  WKU tied the score at 62, but ODU quickly retook the lead and finally clinched the 69-66 victory on two foul shots by freshman Kalu Ezipke with eight seconds left.

It was one of the most remarkable comebacks I’ve ever seen. Jones said it’s the most remarkable he’s seen since he coached Virginia to a victory over Duke three decades ago at Cameron Indoor Stadium in which the Cavaliers trailed by 17.

“This victory, what these kids achieved, is just as big as that victory at Duke,” he said.

Freshman Jason Wade had three first-half steals off the bench that helped spark ODU's comeback from a 21-0 deficit. 

Come-from-behind victories, and playing with poise down the stretch, have become habits for the Monarchs.

ODU trailed No. 25 Syracuse by 13 in the first half in the Carrier Dome, yet rallied to win 68-62.

The Monarchs also trailed arch-rival VCU by 17 points at The Ted Constant Center, yet won convincingly, 62-52.

The latest is the second of two epic comebacks ODU has staged against WKU.

ODU was 0-4 against WKU in football, but staged a miraculous rally in Bowling Green this past fall, scoring 10 points in the final 12 seconds to claim a 37-34 victory.

Saturday's victory was also sweet because WKU swept three basketball games from ODU last season, including one in the C-USA tournament.

It’s no wonder that ODU athletic director Wood Selig had a huge smile as he watched players in postgame interviews. Selig was the athletic director at WKU before coming to ODU.

Stith and Caver called a team meeting Friday night to let their younger teammates know what a big deal it would be to beat WKU.

“Under the circumstances, we could have given up,” Stith said. “We had already lost (to Marshall). We were down 21-0.

“But we’re not built like that. This team never gives up.

“I love how close this team is, how much we care about each other and care about winning.”

Justice Kithcart, the transfer from Pitt, gave ODU its first lead with a three-pointer in the second half. 

ODU played last week’s games without Marquis Godwin, the guard from Hampton who was lost for the season with a broken ankle.

Jones said without Godwin, ODU needs a lot of help off the bench, and the Monarchs got a bunch on Saturday.

Kithcart, the transfer from Pitt, scored seven points. Jason Wade had four points and four rebounds, but it was his three first-half steals that keyed ODU's comeback.

Ezipke played solid defense against Charles Bassey, the 6-foot-11, five-star freshman, and also had eight rebounds and four points. Dajour Dickens, the 7-foot transfer from Providence, also played well at center, scoring nine points and blocking two shots.

ODU takes its first conference road trip to Boca Raton and Miami, Fla., this week. The Monarchs play Florida Atlantic on Thursday and Florida International on Saturday. Both teams are off to unusually good starts, each at 10-5.

ODU's bench had plenty to cheer for Saturday night as Monarchs overcame a 21-0 deficit to upend WKU. 

A big game looms Jan. 31, when ODU hosts North Texas, which is 15-1 and ranked 36th in the NCAA’s NET rankings, which will replace the oft-maligned RPI when the NCAA tournament committee begins selecting teams in March.

Alas for ODU, in spite of its 11-4 record, and victory over a nationally ranked ACC team, the Monarchs are 76th in the NET rankings. It may sting ODU fans to know that VCU is 46th and Syracuse is 55th.

Jones hasn’t yet begun to pay attention to the rankings, saying they won’t matter until most teams hit the midway point of their conference schedules.

He got emotional during his postgame comments to his players. 

“I told our guys in the locker room that in addition to gutting it out, it showed me how much they care about one another,” Jones said. “They refused to quit on one another and they stuck together.

“Given the loss to Marshall, this is one we had to have. I’m really so proud of our guys.”

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu