FRISCO, Texas (Harry Minium, ODUSports.com) - What has at times been a difficult and frustrating season for the Old Dominion women's basketball team has, for now at least, turned out to have a pretty sweet finish.
The ODU women erased a 5-point lead in the final 22.9 seconds of regulation and dominated in overtime to defeat Western Kentucky, 83-77, Tuesday in the preliminary round of the Conference USA tournament at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas.
After losing nine of its first 15 games, ODU (11-10) has won five of its last six. At times during the second half of the season, ODU has only had seven players on the bench. With the return of Ajah Wayne, ODU now has eight.
"We are peaking at the right time," said Mariah Adams, who led ODU with 20 points.ODU advances to Wednesday's first round, where the Monarchs will take on North Texas (13-6) at 12:30 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPN+.
First-year coach DeLisha Milton-Jones said she's proud of her players for showing so much intestinal fortitude.
"They've persevered through so much and they've done it together," she said. "These trying times filled with drama and adversity have a special way of bringing people together.
"That's especially true when you have the right kinds of conversations with your players and everyone is committed to the same goal."As bleak as things were, the fog was so thick we couldn't see what was right in front of us. But now the fog is dissipating and it's fading away we're able to see further down the road."Now we see the light at the end of the tunnel."
ODU appeared to be in big trouble in the final minute of regulation.WKU led, 62-60, with 40 seconds left when Meral Abdelgawad made a foul shot and missed the second. WKU's Myriah Haywood sneaked into the lane and grabbed the rebound, forcing ODU to foul.Amy Collett then made two free throws to build the lead to 65-60 with 22.9 seconds left.
Following an ODU timeout, Victoria Morris found herself open on a set play and swished a three-pointer with 20.5 seconds left. ODU then called its last timeout.
Rather than foul right away, Milton-Jones told her players to attempt to create a turnover. Adams obliged, forcing a jump ball with 11.7 seconds left with the arrow pointing ODU's way.
On the ensuing possession, ODU's guards were tightly defended on the perimeter, but then Ajah Wayne saw Maggie Robinson wide open in the lane and fired a pass to Robinson, who made the layup with 2.1 seconds left.
WKU appeared to miss the final shot of regulation but a Hilltopper had stepped out of bounds. Milton-Jones ran to the other bench to let game officials know they should review the play.
The refs, who were aware of the turnover, awarded possession to ODU with 1.9 seconds left. Wayne got herself free for an open shot from about 30 feet away but it clanked off the rim.
Wayne and the Monarchs did not miss much in overtime. The Monarchs got a three-pointer from Wayne and two from Morris and made their last four three throws to win going away.
It was ODU's third victory in a row over WKU (7-16), which lost a pair at ODU last weekend.Adams, the 6-foot junior from Little Rock, Arkansas, said that she and her teammates have scant time to celebrate.
"It feels good just knowing that my teammates persevered through all the adversity," she said. "It feels great.
"But it only lasts so long because tomorrow we've got another game."
ODU won with superior defense, Milton-Jones said.
"That's why we've been able to win five of our last six games. It's been the defensive effort we've put forward," she said.
"When we give people one opportunity to shoot and when we can rebound and run, we're in a great place offensively and it opens up the game for us."
The Monarchs must win four more games in four days to win the C-USA title. Milton-Jones said ODU is only focused on North Texas.
"We know where we ultimately want to be but we're not overlooking anybody along the way," she said.
"We are taking it one game at a time. We have had the conversation amongst ourselves to make sure we focus on our foes that are right here in front of us."