By Harry Minium
NORFOLK, Va. – The Old Dominion men’s basketball team wrapped up a first-round bye in the Conference USA Tournament Saturday night.
The Monarchs held off an FIU second-half comeback effort and then blew the Panthers out of Chartway Arena, 83-63, and in the process, put a hammerlock on fifth place in the C-USA East Division standings.
The sixth- and seventh-place teams meet in the first round of the tournament on Tuesday, March 8, while the fifth-place team plays the following day.
ODU (12-17 overall, 7-9 Conference USA) clinched no worse than fifth place with Saturday’s victory. FIU (15-13, 5-11) will face Marshall in that first-round game.
“Obviously, we didn’t want to play on Tuesday” in the Conference USA Tournament, coach Jeff Jones said. “We have put ourselves in a position that we at least know we’ll play on Wednesday, and that’s a good thing.”
ODU would have to win four games in four days to win the tournament, but had they played on Tuesday, the Monarchs would have had to have won five in a row.
Austin Trice led ODU with 23 points, 15 rebounds and three assists in spite of missing much of the second half with foul trouble.
Both Trice and Mekhi Long were injured in the final minutes while going up for layups. Trice re-injured a sprained ankle after taking a spill in which no foul was called. Jones said he likely will be OK to play at Louisiana Tech on Wednesday.
Long likely has a soft tissue injury in the wrist of his shooting hand. While Jones said he hopes Long will be available, he won’t know more for a few days. FIU’s Seth Pinkey was called for a flagrant foul after knocking Long to the floor.
Trice was absolutely dominant in a first half in which the Monarchs were also dominant. Trice scored 19 points and eight rebounds to help ODU take a 42-25 lead.
FIU came charging back in the second half to make it competitive, but never retook the lead.
Former players were honored at halftime of alumni night.
The Panthers trimmed the lead to two, the last time at 50-48, with 11:18 left. A.J. Oliver II then made a driving reverse layup, was fouled and made the foul shot to help spark an 11-2 run that put ODU back in control.
Long made a three-pointer with four minutes left that put the Monarchs ahead, 68-53, and drew a standing ovation from the crowd of 5,342.
Jones said he did not call a timeout during the FIU comeback because “I thought it was important for our guys to figure it out.
“It got close. It got too close for comfort. But they figured it out. We got a couple of stops and made some big baskets.
“And then our guys really turned it on again. It shows when we’re clicking we can, do good things.”
In spite of the 12-17 overall record, ODU has played well at home. ODU is 9-4 at Chartway Arena, and would be 11-2 had the Monarchs not lost in overtime to the College of Charleston and UTEP.
WAVY sportscaster Bruce Rader and his family were honored at halftime.
Asked why the Monarchs are winning at home, Smith said it’s the ODU fans. The Monarchs lead Conference USA in attendance.
“It’s definitely the fan support,” he said. “When we go out there knowing regardless of whether we’re going on a run or the other team is going on a run, that we’re going to hear the crowd and our fans will have our backs, it keeps us going and gives us momentum.”
Jones praised ODU’s fans, who he said have been remarkable under the circumstances.
“Look, there were 5,000 people here on a Saturday night and it hasn’t been the best season and you’ve got COVID and everything else,” he said. “And they came out to support the team.
“Hopefully they enjoyed the positives that they saw tonight. Hopefully the fans have enjoyed watching these guys.”
ODU’s last home game is Saturday, March 5, against Middle Tennessee at 2 p.m. It will be Senior Day and the final home games for Trice, Oliver and C.J. Keyser.