Old Dominion clinched one in next month’s Conference USA tournament with a 70-63 win over Marshall on Thursday night at the Constant Center that left coach Jeff Jones gratified, if a bit perplexed over his team’s lack of first-half fire.
The surprising Monarchs (14-15, 8-6) are finding all sorts of things to play for that few would have dreamed of at the season’s outset, when they were widely projected to be among the league’s bottom feeders.
There is the first-round tournament bye, which goes to the conference’s top nine finishers. (ODU can finish no lower than eighth.) There is the possibility of a winning record. There is the chance of finishing as the most improved team in the nation.
Given all those possibilities, Jones said he was as steamed as he’s been all season over ODU’s lack of energy in the first half.
“I was angry. I just challenged the guys,” he said. “I wanted them to play the way they are capable of playing. The good thing is they responded. The bad thing is I had to resort to that.”
ODU turned a two-point halftime deficit into a 14-point lead with 7:07 left. The Fat Lady had not sung, exactly, but a portly fan doffed his shirt and danced. The Ted, with 6,230 in attendance, was rocking.
The Thundering Herd (9-20, 3-11) had a run left. Marshall trimmed the margin to nine, then seven. But by the time the Herd got it to five, just 14.9 seconds remained.
“We’re the youngest team in the country,” coach Tom Herrion said. “Our growing pains continue to mount with this group.”
Marshall’s leading scorers are freshmen. Kareem Canty, a freshman point guard, led the Herd with 24 points. Sophomore Chris Thomas had 17 and freshman Ryan Taylor eight. By the Herd’s recent standards – it had dropped three of its past four by three points – the margin of defeat was wide.
Meanwhile, the Monarchs, winners of just five games a year ago, continued to shatter expectations.
After shooting just 37 percent in the first half, ODU clicked in the second, hitting 61.5 percent. The Monarchs also ramped up the defensive intensity.
Richard Ross (19 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks) led the way on both ends.
The 6-foot-6 sophomore hit 8 of 10 shots, using his quickness to get to the rim after catching the ball in the middle of Marshall’s zone. A switch to man-to-man, something Herrion is loath to do, didn’t slow Ross.
“We did a poor job tagging him – man or zone,” Herrion said.
Aaron Bacote, who sat the final 10:40 of the first half after picking up his second foul, scored 17 of his 22 points in the second half.
“We knew we could play better,” he said. “(Coach) let us know we were playing bad, and he challenged us. We just rallied together and responded.”
Bacote hit 3 of 4 3-pointers. His first of the second half gave ODU a 34-31 lead. He then found Ross for a baseline dunk.
ODU kept pouring it on. After Marshall cut the margin to 56-47 with 5:23 left, Bacote hit another 3. He followed that with a spinning layup. On the next possession, he crossed over a defender to get to the rim, had his shot blocked, but saved it from going out of bounds and whipped the ball to Ross, who scored on a layup.
Unlike the first half, Jones could not fault the effort.
“I don’t know why we were so sluggish in the first half,” Jones said. “In the second half, we came out, our activity level, our energy level was much higher, and I think everything else kind of spawned from that.”
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