Wednesday, 8 a.m. – Hello from New Orleans
"I gotta feeling, that tonight's gonna be a good night"
---- The Black-Eyed Peas
By Brendan O'Hallarn
We're here in New Orleans, getting ready for some NCAA hoops. The Old Dominion Monarchs play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tomorrow in their first game (of hopefully six) in the NCAA Tournament.
After flying to New Orleans through Baltimore last night, I woke up to the sound of traffic from the street below. I'm in one of North America's great cities. Our fans have started to arrive. Notre Dame fans are out in force. Fans of Kentucky, Texas, Baylor, Wake Forest and the other teams will soon fill the French Quarter.
To top it all off, it's St. Patrick's Day. Tonight IS going to be a good, good night.
For the Monarchs, however, it's a business trip. After a spirited practice on Tuesday, the team, coaches, support staff, band and cheerleaders arrived at the airport for their charter flight. I was leaving at the same time, so it was nice to see the students all dressed up.
The players hope to make their impression on the court. We've been a trendy upset pick for the experts who are prognosticating the first round of the Big Dance.
Fifteen years ago today, another ODU team was exactly nobody's choice to win its first-round game, against top 10-ranked Villanova. But that's exactly what those Monarchs did, winning 89-81 in triple overtime in one of the great first-round games in NCAA Tournament history. That's the last time an Old Dominion men's team won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
Associate Head Coach Jim Corrigan was on the ODU coaching staff back in 1995. "It was a great opportunity for us," Corrigan recalled yesterday. "They had just won the Big East Tournament by about 25 points over UConn, they had four guys that went onto the NBA. It was an extremely daunting task."
Corrigan said the Monarchs had one thing in their favor – the players truly believed they could win the game. "We had a very veteran team, and we played with a great deal of poise throughout the game," Corrigan said. "There were several times that it looked like it was lost, but our guys hung tough and made plays. We just kind of hung around until we got a chance to make some plays to win the game and we did."
Corrigan said an interesting thing happened as the game went on. More and more of the crowd started to pull for the underdog, 14th seeded Monarchs. "By the time the game was over, we had the vast majority of the crowd on our side," he said. "I think the appreciated the intensity, the effort, and obviously in the early rounds, people want to see the upset."
Petey Sessoms, who was recently honored as one of the Colonial Athletic Association's 25 best players, scored 35 points in the win, including a key three-point play in the third overtime. But no upset is possible without a total team effort.
Mike Jones was a guard on the ODU team that day. Now in his 12th year as head basketball coach and recruiting coordinator at DC-area power DeMantha High, Jones remembers the complete and total fatigue at the end of the game. "Dave Harvey and I were roommates for the trip," Jones said. "We didn't get back to the hotel until way after midnight, and we all got pizzas in our room. I remember falling asleep and waking up with my warmup clothes still on and a pizza box next to me. I hadn't even taken off my shoes!"
That fatigue meant ODU "ran out of gas" against Tulsa in the second round, Corrigan said. "There were some lessons to be learned," he said. "You need to know how to handle yourself with what's coming up.
"It's a whole different experience going to the NCAA if you're lucky enough to win a game. It's a whole different experience than anything you've experienced all year long. It's hard to describe, it's just different. Hopefully, this year's kids will be lucky enough to experience it."
Jones is rooting hard for ODU on Thursday, but he does feel the tug of the Irish. Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey is an alumnus of DeMantha, and one of Jones' players has committed there for next season. "He and I have been talking a little trash to get ready for the game," Jones said, laughing.
The lesson Jones took from the huge upset is one he hopes this year's ODU team knows as well – anyone can pull the upset in the NCAA Tournament. "Give a good coach like Coach (Blaine) Taylor three or four days to prepare for an opponent, and they can put a game plan together to win. The ODU players have a chance to do something they will never forget."
We'll leave for the hotel in a few hours. The team will conduct interviews for the national media at the New Orleans Arena, then hold a short shootaround, to get used to the rims and the shooting background where the games will be played on Thursday. Then the Monarchs will drive to nearby Loyola University for a brisk practice, then back at the hotel by mid afternoon, to get ready for the next day's game.
Fans of the team have already started to arrive in the Big Easy. On Thursday morning before the big game, ODU Athletics, the Big Blue Club and the ODU Athletic Association will hold a fan party at the W Hotel at 333 Poydras Street in New Orleans, starting at 9:30 a.m.
Brendan O'Hallarn works in public relations for Old Dominion University
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