Old Dominion stays in the zone

NEW ORLEANS – If Old Dominion earned the label of Cinderella with its 51-50 upset over Notre Dame, it’s a title that doesn’t suit the Monarchs very well.

They didn’t pour onto the court in jubilation at the final buzzer. They didn’t hoist coach Blaine Taylor on their shoulders as they left the court. And they were reluctant to even acknowledge their victory was an upset in the post-game locker room.

Gerald Lee and the Monarchs showed their confidence coming into the tournament was warranted.
(Crystal LoGiudice / US Presswire)

Awarded the same No. 11 seed fellow Colonial Athletic Association power George Mason made noise from four years ago, the Monarchs showed Thursday why they were a trendy office-pool upset pick this week. They rallied from a six-point halftime deficit to notch their first NCAA tournament victory since 1995, surviving only after the potential game-tying 3-pointer from Notre Dame’s Carleton Scott rimmed in and out in the final seconds.

“Everyone was saying that we were the underdog coming into the game, but we knew we could play with them,” Old Dominion guard Darius James said. “There wasn’t any question in our mind. We knew what we had to do and we came out and did it.”

If Notre Dame’s Big East pedigree didn’t inspire fear in Old Dominion (27-8), the Irish’s late-season surge certainly had the Monarchs’ attention. Notre Dame (23-12) finished the season with six wins in seven games to rise from the fringes of the bubble picture to a No. 6 seed, compensating for an injury to star forward Luke Harangody by slowing the tempo and spreading the offense around.

The experience of playing without Harangody should have helped Notre Dame on Thursday, but the Irish didn’t respond well to an uncharacteristically poor performance from their senior leader. Not only did the foul-plagued Harangody miss his first seven shots and score his only four points in the final minute, Notre Dame’s guards clanked 20 of 26 3-pointers and failed to shoot the Monarchs out of their array of zone defenses.

“You play against a zone, eventually you’ve got to make some shots,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We got enough defensive stops to win, but you’ve got to make some stuff over the top of the zone and we couldn’t.”

The genesis of Old Dominion’s victory may have come in the final days of last season when the Monarchs won the College Insiders Tournament, a huge confidence boost for a team that returned its entire roster this season. Old Dominion built on last season’s finish by upsetting Georgetown in December and then capturing the CAA’s regular season and tournament titles, entering the NCAA tournament on a five-game winning streak.

When Old Dominion shot 10 of 29 in the first half on Thursday, got out-rebounded by seven and failed to make a single 3-pointer until 11 seconds before halftime, the Monarchs entered the locker room encouraged to trail by only six. Instead of panicking or altering their strategy, the Old Dominion coaching staff emphasized continuing to pound the ball down low on offense but attacking the glass with a little more urgency at both ends of the floor.

“We played our worst half of the season, and we were only down six,” James said. “In the locker room, everyone was good. Nobody was worried or anything. We knew we could come out and win this.”

To fulfill that goal, Old Dominion needed contributions from both its stars and supporting cast.

Leading scorer Gerald Lee managed just nine points, but his tie-breaking 16-footer with 1:27 remaining gave Old Dominion the lead for good. Forward Frank Hassell capitalized on the defensive attention paid to Lee to post 15 points and 9 rebounds. And reserve Keyon Carter sank two free throws with nine seconds left to extend Old Dominion’s lead to three after Lee and James had missed crucial foul shots in the final two minutes to keep the Irish in contention.

When Hassell showed up to the post-game press conference wearing a white T-shirt with a drawing of a padlock on the front of it, he was asked whether reporters should read anything into his choice of attire.

“No, no, no meaning behind it,” Hassell said, chuckling. “I liked this shirt because it was $5.”

Too bad, because for anyone looking for a double-digit seed with the size, experience and confidence to make a run in this tournament, Old Dominion may be a lock to deliver.

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Updated Thursday, Mar 18, 2010