NORFOLK, Va. (ODUSports.com) - Coming off one of its most dispiriting losses in years, the Old Dominion basketball team tightened up defensively and rode the shoulders of an outstanding second-half performance from Kalu Ezikpe to hold off Northeastern, 66-62, Sunday afternoon at Chartway Arena.
ODU (3-2) was outplayed, out-hustled and outclassed last week in a 77-54 loss at archrival VCU, a defeat that head coach Jeff Jones took the blame for. With a week to look at themselves in the mirror, and work hard in practice, the Monarchs played much better defense and with poise against Northeastern (1-3), a former CAA rival.
Jones said that while he saw improvement, it's just a first step.
"It's not like all of a sudden we have a hard week of practice, we win a game, and everything is solved," he said. "But it's a good start. Hopefully the guys can see the improvement and realize, we have a long way to go."
Ezikpe had what Jones called a subpar performance in the first half, scoring five points in 11 minutes, so Jones started Austin Trice in his place in the second half and told Ezikpe why.
"I told Kalu that he needed to play with more emotion," Jones said. "I wanted to make him angry. I told him, heck, be angry with me.
"I thought Kalu was a man possessed in the second half."
Indeed he was. ODU led by four when Ezikpe forced a Northeastern turnover and scored six consecutive points for ODU to give the Monarchs a ten-point lead, 49-39, with 11:43 to go. ODU expanded the margin to 13 on a Joe Reece 3-pointer, but then let down defensively and went cold.
Or, as Jones put it, "at times, we shot ourselves in the foot."
Northeastern tied it up, 60-60, with 2:40 left on a three-pointer by Coleman Stucke.
A minute later, Ezikpe took the ball away from Northeastern's Chris Doherty, and then was fouled. He made both foul shots to build the lead to 62-60 with 1:21 left. After Tyson Walker missed for Northeastern, A.J. Oliver II put in a layup after taking a spectacular no-look pass from Malik Curry, and ODU led 64-60.
Northeastern then missed three shots, with Curry rebounding the last shot with nine seconds left. His two foul shots sealed the victory.
Ezikpe finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, a career-high four blocked shots, two steals and an assist in just 26 minutes.
Jones said sometimes basketball players are too smart for their own good, and that is the case with Ezikpe, who is not only thoughtful and sensitive, but also a caring person, Jones said.
"Sometimes players can be too smart, too much of a thinker, and I think that's the case for Kalu," Jones said. "He's got to trust he's a good player and he's got to let it go.
"Kalu is so nice. He's really a good person. Maybe he needs to play angry. He's a great player. The more we can get him to play at a higher level, the better we will be."
Ezikpe, like Jones, also described the game as a good first step, but only a first step.
He said the players called a players-only meeting after the loss at VCU and were honest and open about how things need to change.
"I'm told that they watched the film together," Jones said. "Their thoughts were pretty consistent with mine, that that performance didn't represent the kind of effort we should have, the kind of basketball team we should be."
Reece had 11 points, seven rebounds and a blocked shot and the ever-steady Curry ten points and eight assists.
In spite of its 1-3 record, Northeastern is a quality opponent. After having their season delayed for weeks with COVID-19 issues, the Huskies split games with UMass and then fall at Syracuse by six in a game they could have won.
ODU shot well (52 percent) and outrebounded Northeastern by one, but it was the defense that won this game, Jones said.
Xavier Green, conversely, did not shoot well, making 2 of 8, but was perhaps ODU's best defensive player, Jones said. Much of his effort didn't shot up in the box score, as he forced players to shoot poorly or make blind passes.
"You want players to be leaders and Xavier was a leader today," Jones said. "He had some great plays on the defensive end. That was really good to see.
"Hopefully our guys will understand and see what he did. If you get one guy doing that, then hopefully you get two and three."
ODU has little time to prepare for its next opponent – Virginia Wesleyan visits ODU Tuesday at 7 in the first regular-season game between the two Hampton Roads schools.
It is the season opener for Virginia Wesleyan, which has one of the nation's most respected Division III programs. Last season VWU was 23-5 and lost to Randolph-Macon in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship game.
Coach Dave Macedo is 431-151 in 20 seasons at Wesleyan and won the 2006 NCAA title, took the Marlins to the Final Four three times, four times to the Elite eight and seven times to the Sweet 16.
ODU is then off for Christmas before opening Conference USA play on New Year's Day at Florida International in the first of two games in two days against the Miami school.