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ODU women can’t complete comeback, fall to James Madison in Sun Belt Tournament semifinal

Old Dominion’s women lost 70-64 to their royal rival, No. 1 seed James Madison, in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament on Sunday.

In the first two rounds of tournament play, Old Dominion found itself fighting off comebacks. But on Sunday, the roles were reversed for the Monarchs.

James Madison dominated most of the game, but ODU (22-12) fought back to make it close.

“We were in a situation where we were down 11 at one point, and we had to take a hard look as to why,” ODU coach DeLisha Milton-Jones said. “It wasn’t that JMU was doing anything spectacular or different from what they always do. It was more so about the things that we were doing or allowing them to do. We weren’t dictating enough on the defensive end and they were able to get to their comfort zone within their skill sets.”

The Dukes led by as many as 16 points in the third quarter. but the Monarchs finally found a rhythm and went into the fourth quarter down 47-45. They pulled even at 47 early in the quarter, but JMU went on a 6-0 run and didn’t relinquish the lead.

Senior Makayla Dickens continued to stay on fire for Old Dominion. Her eight points in the third quarter were crucial during the Monarchs’ comeback.

Dickens led a crew of Monarchs who played a key role coming off the bench in the third quarter. Old Dominion had 26 total bench points, but 17 of them came in the third quarter.

Younger players like sophomores Brenna Fontana and Kaylen Nelson helped out, scoring eight and four points, respectively, in clutch moments.

“We regrouped, everyone re-energized themselves and we made some substitutions, and we were able to get tremendous contributions from players that might have gotten unlimited minutes throughout the year,” Milton-Jones said. “But as we stated in the locker room, that is a telltale sign of a good team. Where you can come in, in the most crucial moments, and sub in for someone that averages 30-plus, and you can fill in that cog and the machine still runs.”

After outscoring the Dukes 25-16 in the third quarter, the Monarchs stayed close in the fourth quarter. The most James Madison led by in the fourth quarter was eight points.

Brianna Jackson played a huge role for Old Dominion, but had to leave the game early after fouling out with just under two minutes remaining. Jackson finished with 11 points and six rebounds.

“Gutsy performance. It’s not easy being a woman of the paint. It’s not easy at all,” Milton-Jones said. “A lot of the times, things aren’t gonna go her way because she likes to meet that physicality with physicality, and she likes to be aggressive in terms of her shot blocking. So it puts her in compromising positions.”

The production of the Monarchs’ season-leading scorer, Amari Young, was limited. She played only 12 minutes and scored eight points. During one timeout, it appeared that the ODU training staff was working on her lower leg.

ODU had a chance to cut JMU’s lead to one late in the game, but couldn’t complete the comeback.

Dickens drove in the lane and missed a layup, and Fontana stole the ball after a JMU defender rebounded it. Fontana found Dickens wide open in the corner for a 3-pointer, but with 13 seconds remaining, Dickens stepped out of bounds right before hitting the shot.

The Dukes (25-7) were led by Kiki Jefferson (22 points) and Kseniia Kozlova (20).

The fifth-seeded Monarchs very well could be called for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. An NCAA Tournament bid is unlikely.

Milton-Jones established herself as a firm believer that the Sun Belt should get more than one bid in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of who makes it, but also said the team would accept a WNIT invite.

“This team deserves to continue to play and have a postseason,” Milton-Jones said. “I think that we can go in and make a lot of noise. I still feel like we have something to prove and something to win. So if there is a berth for us to be able to get into WNIT, we’ll be more than welcome and more than happy to accept.”