Sunday 6:45 p.m. - What do I write about this??
By Brendan O'Hallarn
I am sitting here at my keyboard, struggling. How do describe a basketball game that makes you cry, actually cry, because you're so joyous, so emotional, so spent.
By now, you SHOULD know that ODU defeated its nemesis, Virginia Commonwealth, in overtime of the semifinal game of the CAA Tournament, 73-69. And that ODU will play in Monday's championship game of the tournament, with a berth in the NCAA Tournament going to the winner.
But that doesn't begin to describe the roller coaster of emotions the game meant for the participants and spectators. So much history between the two teams. So much at stake for an ODU team seen as one of the best in years.
Again, I'm not qualified to provide any sort of authoritative report. So here's a day-long play-by-play from one fan, who cheers for this team of wonderful guys with all of his heart.
11:45 a.m. -- Three hours, 15 minutes to tipoff, and there are already a hundred or so VCU fans in the line for student tickets when I drive by the Richmond Coliseum. I know their campus is a mile away, and we hate them and all, but that's impressive. It also speaks to how big a game this will be today.
12:30 p.m. - I'm back in the car after meeting my wife, two kids and our friends for lunch. They're going to the Children's Museum. I'm off to my own amusement park. My wife asks me to buy her a couple of tickets, which she'll pick up from Will Call. She's going to watch ODU from the upper deck while trying to wrangle a four-year-old AND a one-year-old. Now that's a fan!
12:45 p.m. Haha parking lot attendants! They weren't in place to collect the five dollars from me when I parked my car. It's a good omen for today. A potential bad omen - the six vehicles next to me are full of tailgating VCU fans. But we knew this. It's a road game for us.
1 p.m. - One of the great things about becoming an ODU basketball fanatic this season is that I now know so many of the team's fans. I step out onto the concourse and one of the first people I see is Barb Taychert, who I took a madcap drive with to watch our win at UNC-Wilmington in January. At the tournament you meet fans from every different team. I chatted up some William & Mary fans, asking who they want to win between us and ODU. "They can't both lose, can they?" the guy asks. "I guess I'll take ODU." We'll take any support we can get, lukewarm or otherwise.
1:10 p.m. - Now the line for VCU student tickets is looooong, snaking all the way around a large brick wall. At the front of the line, I chat with Kim Redford, asking what time she arrived. "Seven-thirty a.m." she says proudly. Then the VCU fans boo in unison as a couple of ODU fans cut through their line to get to the Old Dominion entrance. Over in the ODU line, International Studies student Kim Ganczak has gone all out, wearing an ODU flag over her shoulders, with painted cheeks and a blue and white "Cat in the Hat" hat. Engineering student Wafic Omran urges me to sit in the student section today. "You're good luck for us," he says, noting that we won the game with VCU in Norfolk when I sat in the student section.
1:25 p.m. -- I pop into the Big Blue Club party and it's packed. The food's gone quickly as several hundred Monarch fans chat nervously. The Ted Heads have the paint kit, thankfully, outfitting ODU fan Chris Rigotti with blue paw prints across his bald head.
1:40 p.m. - Back outside the arena, I see a handful of tall kids and an older gentleman wearing basketball sweats from IC Norcom in Portsmouth. That's Ben Finney's school. Assistant coach Barney Stevenson has brought a few of the team's current players, including Finney's brother Dorian Finney-Smith. "You get excited when you see these kids grow up to be Division 1 players," says Stevenson, who coached Ben as well. "You remember them when they play rep ball before they even get to high school."
2:05 p.m. I stalk the floor before the game, watching players from both teams fire jumpers, looking serious. In fact, everyone I see wearing ODU gear, player or fan, looks about as serious as I've seen them all season. I climb the stairs of the ODU fan section to chat with my friends the Kieltys and Browns. I ask for predictions. Peter Kielty thinks the Monarchs will win by 10. Beverly Kielty thinks it'll be six. Barbara Brown thinks it'll be a three-point win by ODU. "That'll kill (her husband) Jerry," I warn. "I know," she says. "He's walking in the concourse now. He's too nervous."
2:45 p.m. A couple of George Mason fans proudly sport their colors. I sidle up and ask who they're with. "ODU all the way," one says. "Beat those guys for us." Old Dominion Hail!
3:00 p.m. - Intros. We're starting the same lineup as Saturday: Gerald Lee, Frank Hassell, Ben Finney, Kent Bazemore and Darius James. I look over at the student section and it's packed, too. Now we're ready for some hoops!
3:15 p.m. - First timeout and we're up 8-7 after a layup by Gerald. It's almost dizzying to keep up with the action; bodies fly all over the court. The sellout crowd - three-quarters for them, a quarter for us - couldn't possibly be louder.
3:20 p.m. - Scratch that. The roof just about came off the Coliseum after VCU got a three-pointer, then a steal and jumper to go ahead 18-13. Kent Bazemore quiets the folks in black and gold and gets the blue and white fans on their feet after driving the length of the court for a vicious two-handed dunk in traffic.
3:45 p.m. - It's halftime and ODU's ahead 32-29. A few highlights from the last couple of minutes include a steal and dunk by ODU senior Marsharee Neely, and Gerald Lee drawing Terrance Saintil's third foul and making both free throws. The ODU student section chants "Three fouls! No points" at Saintil. The VCU student paper reporter next to me informs me that's a typical statline for him. During halftime I make the hike to my wife and kids' seats in the third deck. I think I got a nosebleed it was so high. But my daughter is representing well, with "Go ODU" painted on her cheek.
4:15 p.m. - OK, that's not how we wanted to start the second half. At the first media timeout, VCU has turned a three-point deficit into a 39-34 lead. The Rams' full court press is causing us difficulty. The burst blood vessel in my brain is causing me difficulty.
4:35 p.m. - Can we start the second half over? Another steal by tiny VCU guard Joey Rodriguez leads to a dunk and we're behind 52-40 at the under-12 media timeout. I look up at the scoreboard and see that No. 12 has 20 points. I just assume that's Rodriguez, but that's actually Gerald Lee's point total. It just seems like Rodriguez has that many points. That little dude is everywhere. Not a good sign - during the media timeout it was our cheer and dance team's turn to take the floor. They look how I feel. Shattered. We can't lose this game.
4:45 p.m. - That's a little better! Our switch to a zone defense makes VCU a little more stationary on offense, and we cut into their lead a little bit. At the under-8 media timeout we've pulled within seven, and we've got the ball coming out of the timeout.
4:55 p.m. - We're still behind by six. Five minutes to go. Out of a timeout, Neely spins to the top of the key and lets a three-pointer go. Bam! We're within three. VCU scores, and Keyon Carter lines up his own three the next time down. Kapow!!! Two-point game!!!!!! It's VCU's cheer team's turn to look shell-shocked during their court time.
5:00 p.m. - My heart didn't need this. Overtime, tied at 62. We had the ball with 35 seconds left and turned it over, but our defense kept VCU from winning the game at the buzzer. As the horn sounds to end regulation time, fans of both teams roar in appreciation at what they're seeing. What a fantastic game.
5:15 p.m. - Overtime is a blur. We don't miss a shot, but VCU scores with regularity as well. Nursing a two-point lead, Ben Finney lines up a three-point shot in transition with a little over a minute to go. It finds the net. Cue the waterworks for your blogger. Sitting in a courtside seat, forced to express my emotions by squeezing my palms together all game (no cheering in press row), I finally lost it. This team deserved this win so much.
5:30 p.m. - I'll let Marsharee Neely, one of the Monarchs' many heroes, sum up what this tournament means to the team. "We live for moments like this," he says. "I have the net that we brought up to Richmond, the one we cut down last week (when ODU won the regular season title). Every night before bed I look at it, and say it's missing its twin. We need to cut down that other net."
Brendan O'Hallarn works in public relations for Old Dominion University
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