ODU loses a heartbreaker at WKU, but returns home with coveted first-round bye

Old Dominion ODU men's basketball
Posted at 11:07 PM, Mar 06, 2021

BOWLING GREEN, KY. ( - The Old Dominion's men's basketball team did what it had to do this weekend, rallying from a 13-point deficit Friday night to defeat Western Kentucky and claim a first-round bye in the Conference USA tournament.

But the basketball gods did not shine on the Monarchs in Saturday's rematch in Bowling Green, Kentucky, as WKU eked out a 60-57 victory in a game that ended when an attempted three-point shot from ODU's Kalu Ezikpe rimmed out just before the buzzer sounded.

A sweep would have given ODU (15-7 overall, 11-5 C-USA) the East Division championship. Instead, the Monarchs enter next week's C-USA tournament in Frisco, Texas as the East's No. 2 seed.

The Monarchs will play either North Texas, Florida International or Middle Tennessee Thursday at 10 p.m. Eastern time in the quarterfinals. Middle Tennessee and FIU meet Tuesday in the play-in game and the winner meets North Texas, which finished third in the West, on Wednesday.

WKU (18-6, 11-3) claimed the East Division title and are the No. 1 seed from the East. The Hilltoppers are in the opposite bracket, meaning the Monarchs and WKU would play again only if both advance to the championship game.

For a complete look at the bracket, please CLICK HERE.

ODU defeated Western Kentucky in the C-USA championship game in 2019, the last conference championship game held. Last season's tournament was canceled because of the pandemic.

WKU was the preseason Conference USA favorite and has been ballyhooed most of the season as the league's best team. Yet the Monarchs played on even terms against WKU in back-to-back games in an arena where the Hilltoppers almost never lose and came agonizingly close to a sweep.

"We played really hard, we fought like crazy defensively," coach Jeff Jones said. "But in order to win, we had to make some outside shots and we didn't do that.

"Our guys played so hard this entire weekend. They played their hearts out."

ODU made just 8 of 28 shots in the second half (28.6 percent) after the Monarchs made half of their shots in the first half.

"This is a tough one," Jones added. "We've got to get ourselves regrouped and recharged and get ready for Frisco."

ODU smothered 6-foot-11 center Charles Bassey, the consensus pick as C-USA's best player, who finished with seven points, nine rebounds and four fouls. He had 23 points and 15 rebounds Friday night.

Ezikpe, the 6-foot-8 forward from Atlanta, did yeoman's work defensively on Bassey and had ten points and nine rebounds.

Senior guard Malik Curry, who scored 22 of his 25 points in Friday's second half, led ODU again with 23 points, four rebounds, two steals and two assists. His last basket was a driving layup with 1:25 left in a back-and-forth second half that tied the score at 57.

After Curry's basket, the Hilltoppers then missed four shots in a row, the last by Bassey, before a jump ball handed possession back to the Hilltoppers with 34 seconds left.

"The ball was bouncing long" after the WKU missed shots, right into the arms of Hilltoppers, Jones said.

ODU's Xavier Green tipped one rebound in the direction of Jaylin Hunter, who nearly grabbed it, but was half a second behind a WKU player.

Playing on senior night, WKU senior guard Taveion Hollingsworth made a slashing layup with 25.1 seconds left and Mekhi Long was called for a foul. Hollingsworth made the foul shot, giving WKU a 60-57 lead and setting up a frantic finish.

The Monarchs nearly turned the ball over before it was knocked out of bounds by WKU with 6.8 seconds left. Ezikpe was the only player open on the inbound pass and had an open look at the basket.

Hollingsworth, who has played more minutes than any player in WKU history, led the Hilltoppers with 19 points.

ODU's defense was marvelous, not only shutting down Bassey but forcing 17 turnovers and holding the Hilltoppers to 34.1 percent shooting.

ODU held WKU scoreless for nearly eight minutes in the second half and outscored the Hilltoppers in one stretch, 12-0.

However, the Hilltoppers lived at the foul line, making 22 of 28 shots. WKU outscored ODU by 13 from the free-throw stripe.

ODU was without starting forward Joe Reece, a 6-8 junior who sprained an ankle night on Friday. Jones said he hopes and expects Reece will return for the C-USA tournament.

"We missed Joe, but I think the other guys did a good job stepping up," said Jones, who is 94-45 C-USA games in his eight seasons..

ODU returns to Norfolk Sunday and has the rest of the day off. The Monarchs will then meet on Monday to review film and leave on Tuesday for Frisco. Jones said it's a quick turnaround and his players need to put Saturday's loss behind them.

"Our guys need to get ready, get charged up, to play a great tournament in Frisco," he said.