Thursday, 6:30 p.m. - ODU 51, Notre Dame 50. I'm running out of ways to praise this team. By Brendan O'Hallarn The Old Dominion Monarchs are a national darling, after springing an upset over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But things like this don't happen by accident. I watched this team run sprints at 7 in the morning last September. I saw them hang together after losing three straight games early in the season. I saw the focus and determination (during finals week) when the Monarchs put a game plan together to upset Georgetown. I saw the Monarchs shake off discouraging losses in conference play, responding to each with some of their best games of the year. I'm listening to the guys on ESPN talk about how impressed they are with ODU, with our guys' size, toughness and ability to fight back after falling behind the Irish. Welcome aboard, national media. We're glad you noticed. If you didn't watch the game, you probably aren't interested in reading 2,000 words of diary from me about one of the best days of my sporting life. But if you're as crazy about this team as I am, and couldn't be in the New Orleans Arena today, then I don't think I could write too much. You'll never forget this day, either. Let me tell you about mine. O-dark-30 - I pop awake in total excitement. Check the time. 4:11 a.m. I didn't get to bed until well after midnight. As excited as I am, I think I need just a little more sleep. 7:45 a.m. - Coffee. Thank you, coffee. 8:20 a.m. - Mark Linn has been everywhere this week. I'm slouched on a comfy couch in the upstairs lounge of the W Hotel, working on the blog that I posted pregame. Linn plops down next to me. "Didn't I tell you? I told you we'd be here," he says. Linn has cancer, and ODU coach Blaine Taylor and the team have taken him into the family this season. Ben Finney cut him a link of one of the nets at the CAA Championship in Richmond. For years, Linn was a huge supporter of ODU basketball, hosting recruits at the Harbor Club, which he managed. He's with the team this week. "I'd have been here if I was on a gurney," Linn says. In fact, he looks better than I've seen him all season. 9:35 a.m. - The ODU Pep Band is smoking today. I'm at the pre-game party for Monarch fans at the hotel. Fans in blue and white munch on breakfast while the band plays and the cheer team goes through their routines. There's the sort of nervous energy in the air that you'd feel in school before an exam. And in a way, this is the team's exam. Hopefully not the final one. Sandy Wiley, BS in Psychology '70 is at the party. "We decided that it's a bucket list item for us. We had to be here. Having ODU play their first-round game in New Orleans was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she says. Ramsay Young has been reading every scrap of coverage he can about the team, and enjoys that ODU is a trendy upset pick today. "That's what I've been telling everyone," he says. "The luck of the Irish ended yesterday (St. Patrick's Day), today's the luck of the Monarch." Mike LaRock, Business Administration '85, accompanied colleagues and a client to New Orleans from his job as Chief Financial Officer of Sysco Foods. "We're here to show everybody else what this school and its team is all about. Rad Williamson, a senior marketing associate with Sysco, used to go to ODU games back in the 1960s with his dad. Steve Ballard attended ODU for a year in the 1970s, but left for a business opportunity. That year obviously made an impression, as Ballard is a big donor for the school now; his name adorns the ODU football stadium. "I just like seeing all the young kids playing with such joy, and rooting with such passion," Ballard says. "I've seen the university change so much in the past 10 years. There's so much more at ODU for those kids now." 115 a.m. - I'm on the bus, this time with the cheer and dance teams. Director of bands Alex Trevino regales us with stories of band trips gone wrong at other school. Happy that's not us. I'm surprised he hasn't brought one of those multi-kid leashes that daycares use to corral kids on outings. 10:30 a.m. - Our bus pulls up to the arena to an anthill of activity. Personnel from CBS scurry around making final preparations for the live national broadcast. We go through credential check and I find my spot on press row. The guys are already out on the court shooting around. Luke Harangody, Notre Dame's star forward, walks right past me. He is BIG. He's forward Frank Hassell's height and width, but is even big back to front. He's going to be a load for our front line today. 11 a.m. - Twenty-five minutes to tipoff and I wonder where the fans are. A healthy contingent of ODU fans is clustered in one section, but the entire upper deck is empty. I can't help but wonder if there wouldn't be more fans at the Ted, even if ODU wasn't playing. 11:15 a.m. - Ten minutes to tipoff. I go back in the tunnel to watch the players in the final moments before they take the court for player introductions and tipoff. They're quiet, as usual. Guard Ben Finney can't have that, and starts screeching playfully, a big smile on his face. That brings a tiny bit more energy to the huddle. Kent Bazemore and Nick Wright do a jumping body bump. The players each put an arm in the air. "Play ball!" they cheer, and line up to jog out onto the court. Frank Hassell steps out of line and extends a giant fist at me. We bump. Let's play ball. Our first possession - I'd been telling everyone this week a little stat I figured out by going through an entire season of game play-by-plays - when we hit our first three-pointer, we're undefeated. Sure enough, first possession and Finney's got a three lined up. Thud. I jinxed us. In fact, both teams start cold from the field, and it's only 5-4 Notre Dame at the first official timeout.
12-6 Notre Dame -- Carleton Scott follows a missed three pointer with a thunderous alley-oop dunk of the rebound. The ODU fan in me hates that. The basketball fan in me kind of likes it. This ain't Delaware we're playing today. We're still ice-cold from the field. Darius James misses a three. Hassell misses a short turnaround. Blaine Taylor's only about 15 feet away. I think I heard him grind his teeth.
Timeout Old Dominion - We've switched to zone defense, and slowed down Notre Dame's ingenious "five out" offense, which arrays all five players on the perimeter. I know it's called that because it's so empty in this arena, I could hear Irish coach Mike Brey calling it out. At least our modest contingent of Monarch fans is doing their part. Our section is easily the loudest in the building. However, no defense in the world can stop a team where someone is making 24-foot shots. Ben Hansbrough of the Irish does that and we're down nine, 26-17.
Halftime, 28-22 UND - Keyon Carter dropped a three-pointer with a minute to go in the half, our first three after seven straight misses. We really needed that. Blaine and the other coaches don't look super-thrilled leaving the court, nor should they be. We've been sloppy with the ball, and our shots wouldn't hit the broad side of a barn. Good think our defense showed up today. We held Notre Dame to two points in the last four minutes of the half.
Here come the big guys - We start the second half with a lineup of Lee, Hassell, Carter, Finney and Bazemore. Everyone's six-five or taller. Shoot over that zone, Irish! Finney makes two free throws and we're within three. A few minutes later, Keyon beats the shot clock with a long jump shot at we have our first lead in a long time, 32-31. Our fans roar. Everyone in our section is standing. But the Irish aren't going anywhere. Another Hansbrough three and then a steal and dunk and UND is ahead by four again.
Frank Hassell takes over - Our big forward grabs a ball on the floor and lurches to the basket. Fighting through the basket, he scores a layup and is awarded a free throw. He hits it to tie us up again at 43. Best part of that sequence? Watching Frank's dad, Frank Sr.,pumping his fists wildly. He hugs and high-fives everyone within three rows, ending his one-man Mardi Gras by pointing at the court and yelling, no doubt saying something like "That's my boy!!!!"
Darius for three!!! - Our starting point guard hits a three-point shot. Our fans explode. Taylor and assistant coach Rob Wilkes pump their fists passionately on the bench. The best part of this sequence? Watching Darius' backcourt mate Finney. Settled into the zone, Finney clapped his hands as the Irish dribbled the ball up the court towards him, with the biggest smile I've seen on his face all season. That guy loves, LIVES to compete.
My seatmate has stopped watching - I'm on press row next to Debbie White, ODU's Senior Associate Athletic Director. We've got a narrow lead, and we're at the free throw line. She refuses to watch. As Gerald misses, then misses another, then Darius misses, Debbie clasps her hands and looks down. Finally, Keyon Carter is fouled with 10 seconds to go and makes them both, putting us up by three. "You can watch now," I say.
I'm crying again - I can't help it. I love this team so much. They never, ever quit. They're the toughest team I've ever seen in my life. The ODU fans hug and high-five. Officials from the Colonial Athletic Association are as happy as we are. It's been a while since our conference has won one, and the win will mean millions of dollars in extra revenue for the CAA.
Inside the locker room, the players watch a closed-circuit video feed of the team press conference, making fun of Hassell's deer-in-the-headlights look. Darius James is my dad's favorite player, so I dial my dad and hand Darius the phone. That was almost as big a highlight for my dad, watching back in Canada, as the game itself.
In his press conference, Taylor talks about the effort both teams expended on the court. "I think it reflects the magic of March, the way the two teams battled. One of the officials turns to me at the two-minute mark and said it's been a heck of a game, and I really think it was." Notre Dame coach Brey pays tribute to the Monarchs. "Give a lot of credit to Old Dominion. I thought they played really well and tough and made veteran plays at key times."
One big section of dopey smiles - After the press conferences were done, and I grabbed a piece of pizza from the team room (worry makes me starving) I headed over to visit with my friends in the ODU fan section. I bump fists with Frank Hassell, Sr., telling him: "That was your boy out there." Tears are in his eyes, too. In the fan section, everyone with ODU gear has the same expression on their face. We love our team, we know how good they are. But everyone's face says, "Did that just happen?"
It did. Our Monarchs. Old Dominion, Hail!
Brendan O'Hallarn works in public relations for Old Dominion University
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