FRISCO, Texas (ODUSports.com, Harry Minium) - It was a bitter end to an otherwise memorable season in which the Old Dominion University men's basketball team played with so much grit and determination during the midst of a pandemic.
But stymied by the University of North Texas defense, and unable to connect from beyond the arc, ODU saw the season end with a 61-55 defeat to the Mean Green Thursday night in the Conference USA tournament quarterfinals at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas.
UNT (15-9), the third seed from the West Division, will meet West Division regular-season champion Louisiana Tech in Friday's semifinals.
ODU (15-8), the East Division's second seed, won eight of its last 11 games, and after splitting a pair of games at Western Kentucky last weekend, came into the tournament with high hopes.
The Monarchs got an inspired effort from Malik Curry, the senior guard from Wilmington, Delaware, who made 8 of 12 shots and scored 17 points.
However, ODU's offense faltered in the second half. And as is often the case in tournament play, the referees allowed both teams to bang on each other, and that played to UNT's advantage.
Curry was the only Monarch in double figures.
UNT is one of the league's most experienced teams, and it showed in the second half, when the Mean Green erased a 5-point ODU halftime lead. UNT starts four seniors and a junior, all returnees from last season's regular-season championship team.
"They've had some success," ODU coach Jeff Jones said. "They're battle tested.
"That experience, you can't fake it. That is what makes them a good team."
At 71st, North Texas is the highest-ranked C-USA team in the NCAA NET rankings, a barometer the NCAA uses to rank teams for at-large bids.
"We have a tremendous amount of respect for ODU," UNT coach Grant McCasland said. "They have a tremendous amount of heart.
"But our defense was just awesome in the second half. We made them miss."
Javion Hamlet, the first-team All-C-USA guard from Memphis, Tennessee, scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half and added nine rebounds and seven assists to lead UNT.
The Mean Green made 9 of 20 three-pointers while ODU made just 2 of 12.
Jones, whose Monarchs won the 2019 tournament in Frisco, said his team deserves credit for persevering through the pandemic, even if it they did not play their best game.
The Monarchs formed a "bubble," meaning they avoided contact with anyone but their teammates. On most days, they went from home, to get tested for COVID 19, to practice and back home again.
They didn't go to restaurants and stayed home over the Christmas holidays to avoid contact with others.
"I kind of feel numb right now and I feel so badly for the players," Jones said. "When you think of how far we've come; I don't think people realize just how far we came.
"We fought through adversity. We really grew as a basketball team. We became a good basketball team.
"But to come out tonight and not play sharp, it's disappointing."
While Curry made 8 of 12 shots, the rest of the Monarchs made 15 of 40.
"We needed just one other guy to step up and take the pressure off of Malik," Jones said.
"Losing tonight, it's not easy. This is not something that's going to go away anytime soon. This one will stick around for a while."
Curry said the Monarchs played hard but not well.
"This is not the way we wanted the season to end," Curry said. "Especially since this was the hardest college basketball season that anyone has ever been through. It's been a rough year.
"But you experience adversity in life, you go through difficult things. You sacrifice for the things you love to do."
Things began well for ODU. Curry beat defenders down the court, or snaked past them, for four layups in the first five minutes.
A.J. Oliver II, who had been mired in something of a shooting slump, broke out of it at a good time, swishing back-to-back three-pointers to push ODU to a 26-23 lead with three minutes left in the first half.
Following a UNT miss, Curry streaked down the court for a reverse layup, was fouled and made the foul shot to give ODU a 29-23 lead.
Joe Reece then scored the last points of an ODU 8-0 run when he leapt over a defender after a Curry miss and tipped it in to make it 31-23 with 1:31 left in the opening 20 minutes.
But that was the high-water mark for the Monarchs.
Mardrez McBride made a three-pointer with a minute to go trim the ODU lead to 31-26.
After being knocked back by ODU's defense in the first half, the Mean Green stepped up their intensity in the second half and took their first lead, 40-39, on a McBride three-point shot with 12:20 left.
They never trailed again.
Xavier Green made a short jump shot with 1:36 left that pulled ODU within two points, but Hamlet made two free throws, then added a three-point play with 25 seconds left, to seal ODU's fate.
"I've been doing this a long time and there are some years when you look back, you can see you ended things on a positive note, even if you didn't win a championship," Jones said. "But most years you think you should be playing longer.
"We will wonder what we could have done better, what else could we have done."
As for his players, Jones said: "Our guys have been through a lot.
"They have earned a break. I hope they enjoy it."