NORFOLK, Va. (ODUSports.com) – The Old Dominion women's basketball team won a big game Thursday night, knocking off the defending Conference USA East Division champion, and in the process, moved up a notch in the C-USA East Division standings.
ODU held off a late Middle Tennessee rally with three big defensive stops in the final 34.7 seconds and claimed a 58-56 victory at Chartway Arena.
It was something of a must-win for ODU (18-5, 8-3 C-USA) for the Monarchs to finish among the top two teams in the East Division, and thus draw a bye into the C-USA Tournament Quarterfinals.
The Monarchs moved into a third-place tie with Middle Tennessee (16-5, 8-3) and for now, at least, the Monarchs would win a tiebreaker. The two teams conclude the regular season on March 5 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Charlotte (13-7, 9-1), whose only loss came at home to ODU, leads the conference with Western Kentucky (16-7, 9-3) second.
Middle Tennessee has been a dominant program under coach Rick Insell, who has taken the Lady Raiders to postseason play in all but one of his 16 previous seasons, and that was 2019-2020, when all tournaments were canceled because of COVID. Ten of those bids have been to the NCAA Tournament.
"Tonight was a tremendous win for us," ODU coach DeLisha Milton-Jones said. "We know they've got a great program.
"I thought it was a game of two great teams going at it. It was a clash of titans."
This clash wasn't decided until the final seconds.
Dor Saar topped a dramatic Middle Tennessee rally by making two 3-point shots in less than 40 seconds, the final with 56.5 seconds left, to erase a six-point ODU lead and tie the score at 56-all.
ODU's Amari Young then made one of two free throws with 34.7 seconds left to give the Monarchs a one-point lead.
Milton-Jones then inserted her best defensive players, and the Monarchs forced Middle Tennessee's Courtney Blakely to miss a contested layup. The ball went out of bounds off the Monarchs with 5.1 seconds to go, giving Middle another chance.
ODU again applied a ton of defensive pressure and with no timeouts left and a five-second call looming, Amanda Whittington was forced to throw the ball long and out of bounds.
Iggy Allen, who led ODU with 13 points and nine rebounds, was fouled and made one of two free throws with four seconds left to build the final lead to two. She made 9 of 12 free throws for the night.
Middle Tennessee was unable to get a final shot off as the Monarchs' turned up the defensive pressure for the third time.
ODU built as much as a 13-point lead late in the third quarter behind a full-court press. The press, and ODU's ability to pound the ball inside, erased an early, seven-point Middle Tennessee lead.
"We knew if we could be the aggressor, we could get to the free throw line," said Ajah Wayne, who had 11 points, six rebounds and three assists.
"I don't think they handled our pressure well. I think that was the difference."
Milton-Jones said she's been "biting at the bit to put in [the press], but this was the right moment. We're long and we're athletic and we're quick and smart.
"They like to press people to speed them up. Usually, a team that likes to do that doesn't like another team doing it to them."
Kaylen Nelson, the ODU freshman from Tulsa, Oklahoma, made the first 3-point shot of her college career to tie the score at the end of the first quarter.
The Monarchs scored their last 10 points of the second quarter either in the paint or from the free throw line and led 30-20 at the half. They then continued to pound the ball inside in the third quarter.
But as the fourth quarter began, the Monarchs began to settle for jump shots, and that allowed Middle Tennessee to rally.
Milton-Jones said "we still had opportunities to go inside and didn't take them.
"Maybe we were a little fatigued and settled for jump shots. I have to remind our girls what we have to do everything in grind mode. Nothing comes easy for this team, not with our hard hat, blue collar mentality."
The Monarchs clearly have every right to be fatigued – it was the 11th game in 29 days, including four in the last eight days.
Aziah Hudson, the 5-foot-6 senior from Baldwin, New York, came off the bench and gave ODU 20 valuable minutes.
Her shooting touch was perfect. She made both field goals she attempted, including a 3-pointer, was two-for-two from the free throw line and finished with seven points.
"I feel like this was a great win," she said. "Everybody played their part, everyone played their role. We just had so much energy.
"When all of that is coming together, we're unstoppable."
ODU travels to UAB on Super Bowl Sunday.
The Monarchs are next at home against Marshall on Thursday, Feb. 17, and Western Kentucky on Saturday, Feb. 19.
ODU is 9-2 inside Chartway Arena this season and is 15-8 (.652) at home under Milton-Jones.
The Monarchs are 4-1 in their past five games with the Lady Raiders.
ODU has shot better than 40 percent from the field in back-to-back games for the first time since a five-game stretch between Nov. 28 and Dec. 18. The Monarchs are 9-0 this season when shooting 40 percent or better.
Iggy Allen matched a career high with nine made free throws and set the team high with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Ajah Wayne scored 11 on 4-of-7 shooting with six rebounds and a season-high four steals. She now has 1,241 points and is 30 points behind Jasmine Parker (2007-11) for 26th place on the all-time scoring list at ODU.
Amari Young passed Sharron Francis (1998-02) for sole possession of 29th place on the career scoring ledger at ODU and now has 1,090 points. Young is now six points behind Shonda DeBerry (1992-96).