NORFOLK, Va. (ODUSports.com) – On a day when Old Dominion men's basketball seniors C.J. Keyser, Austin Trice and A.J. Oliver II played their final game at Chartway Arena, all played critical roles in the final 43 seconds to help lift the Monarchs to a stirring, comeback victory.
ODU rallied from six-point deficit to claim a 68-64 triumph over Middle Tennessee that gives the Monarchs a ton of momentum as they head into next week's Conference USA Tournament.
ODU (13-18 overall, 8-10 Conference USA) takes on UTEP in Wednesday's second round at 9 p.m. (ESPN+) in Frisco, Texas. The Monarchs enter that game having won three of their last four.
UTEP (18-12, 11-7) won, 78-70, in overtime at ODU on January 15 in a game in which the Monarchs led most of the way.
The victory over ODU began a streak for the Miners in which they won 10 of their last 14 games. The Miners upset West Division champion North Texas on Saturday, 70-68.
Middle Tennessee (22-9 overall, 13-5 Conference USA) won the league's East Division championship and has a bye into Thursday's quarterfinals. Middle Tennessee won 13 of its final 16 games, but finished the regular season with a two-game losing streak.
Saturday's game was a roller coaster ride for ODU, which led by 10 five minutes into the second half, but then was outscored 21-5 over the next eight minutes to fall behind by six.
ODU quickly rallied, with Kalu Ezikpe and Jaylin Hunter scoring back-to-back baskets and Charles Smith IV a three-pointer that gave ODU a 58-57 lead and brought a crowd of 5,230 to its feet.
The crowd stayed on its feet much of the last five minutes, which saw three lead changes and three ties.
The score was tied 64-64 when the three seniors pushed the Monarchs across the finish line.
Donovan Sims, who led Middle Tennessee with 18 points, attempted a short jumper with 43 seconds left that Oliver blocked. The ball bounced around the court before being picked up by Jaylin Hunter, who crossed mid court with 33 seconds left.
Hunter passed to C.J. Keyser, who did what coach Jeff Jones wanted him to do – he drove in for an attempted layup that just missed.
No matter. Trice, the 6-foot-7 center from Chicago, caught the rebound with his right hand and while still in the air, slammed a one-handed dunk shot with 19 seconds left that began a wild celebration among fans and his teammates.
It had been a frustrating game for Trice, who was benched much of the second half with foul trouble, the final two on questionable calls.
Following a Middle Tennessee timeout, Blue Raiders' forward Tyler Millin missed a jump shot that was rebounded by Hunter, who was fouled with four seconds left.
He swished the first foul shot and the second bounced around the rim and fell in to seal the victory.
Jones said he was proud that his three seniors all made vital plays in the final minute.
"C.J. really attacked the basket, which is exactly the way we would have drawn it up," Jones said. "Had it been a jump shot, Austin couldn't have followed up.
"The fact that C.J. was aggressive and took it in set that up. At least two guys came in to try to contest the shot. That allowed Austin the space to make a big-time play."
Trice, who had seven points, just half of his average, but led the Monarchs with eight rebounds, finished off the dunk in typical fashion – he beat his chest and pointed toward the crowd, which roared in approval.
"It felt amazing," Trice said. "I felt like I wasn't able to back C.J. and my other teammates how I wanted to offensively. So, I just felt like I needed to focus on rebounding.
"When C.J. got the ball on that last possession, I saw the look in his eyes and knew I needed to be there in case it missed."
It's been in large part a frustrating season for Oliver, who hasn't played as much or shot as well as he did in previous season.
"I think it was apropos that A.J. made the big defensive play," Jones said. "We decided down the stretch, in part because Kalu and Austin had four fouls, to have a smaller lineup.
"But we felt like we would be better off going small. And that's why A.J. was in there and he came up with a big play to come up with the ball."
Keyser, a graduate transfer from North Carolina Central, led ODU with 16 points. Hunter added 13 points and seven rebounds, Ezikpe 14 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals and Mekhi Long 10 points.
The Monarchs outrebounded Middle Tennessee, 36-25 including 16 offensive rebounds.
Trice said it was a game he and his fellow seniors will never forget.
"To finish out with a night like this, that's amazing," he said. "That's the way you want to go out, with everyone having a smile on face and good memories to reflect back on."