Minutes after their last nonconference game of the season, the Old Dominion team gathered in a circle in their locker room and began chanting "Conference USA."
After a year and a half, the Lady Monarchs will play a meaningful league game Wednesday when they play their first Conference USA game at UNC Charlotte.
On Sunday, ODU concluded what has been an up and down non-conference schedule by shredding North Carolina Central 68-44 at the Constant Center.
Freshman forward Odegua Oigbokie, who started for the fifth time, continued steady and gradual improvement by scoring 11 points and adding seven rebounds. It was her best performance to date.
Forward Shae Kelley, who was held in single figures in Thursday's blowout loss at No. 3 Duke, had her ninth double-double of the season, with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
The Lady Monarchs (7-7) have suffered a handful of disappointing losses but, essentially, can hit the reset button.
A year ago, ODU was a lame duck in the Colonial Athletic Association and was ineligible for the conference tournament. Now, for the first time since 2011-12, the squad is eligible for a conference championship.
"We played a tough non-conference schedule to prepare for this," coach Karen Barefoot said of a slate that included three ACC schools and games at Ohio State and Virginia Commonwealth.
Ten of 15 opponents in ODU's new league have winning records, including seven with nine or more.
Barefoot said the league will be more challenging than the CAA, "but we'll be able to represent Old Dominion well."
N.C. Central (5-7), which lost to Division II Bluefield State last weekend, managed to keep it close only briefly before ODU, playing its first home game in a month, broke the game open with its full-court press.
The Eagles led, 11-8, then Tiffany Minor made a layup, then Galaisha Goodhope and Kelley followed with steals and layups as ODU quickly blew to a 22-point lead.
N.C. Central, which got 18 points from Jessica Freeman, never cut the lead to less than 15 in the second half.
Kelley said ODU's non-conference schedule will pay off the next two months.
"Conference USA is one of the most athletic conferences in the country," she said. "It's going to be a great challenge for us. But playing the harder teams early will help us."
Notes: ODU assistant coach Jim Corrigan missed his second game in a row to be with his ailing father. ... Freshman forward Destinee Young was held out with a sore knee ...Barefoot hopes Ashley Betz-White will be cleared to play this week. The 5-foot-4 guard, who started most of last season, has been sidelined with a lower-leg injury. She will have an X-ray today.
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