FRISCO, Texas (ODUSports.com, Harry Minium) - The Old Dominion women's basketball team came to Frisco, Texas with the shortest bench and surely the most heart.
Playing their fourth game in four nights, with their typical grit and determination, the Monarchs staged a dramatic rally, trimming an 11-point lead to one in the final 4:55.
However, they missed five of six free throws in the final 29.6 seconds and allowed tournament favorite Rice to escape with a 62-60 victory in the Conference USA tournament semifinals Friday night in the Ford Center at The Star.
ODU (13-11) trailed by 15 in the third quarter and appeared to be headed to defeat with 4:55 left, when Sydne Wiggins made a fallaway three-point shot to give Rice an 11-point lead.
The Monarchs, who rallied to win three tournament games in the previous three nights, rallied once more.
The comeback was sparked by Maggie Robinson, the graduate student from Mobile, Alabama, who made a pair of three pointers on consecutive possessions. Victoria Morris then made a mid-range jumper and Ajah Wayne a layup and with 47 seconds left and the Monarchs trailed by just a point, 57-56.
The Monarchs then missed five free throws on their next three possessions and that proved to be their undoing. Wayne made the one free throw with 14.7 seconds left that cut the lead to two, 59-57.
ODU was then forced to foul and the Owls made all four of their free throws.
ODU kept scrapping until the end. Ash'a Thompson, a freshman from Desoto, Texas, about 40 minutes south of Frisco, made a three-point shot with four seconds left. ODU fouled Katelyn Crosthwait with 1.2 seconds left, and she made one of two foul shots.
Morris got off a throw-it-up-and-pray shot from ¾ quarter just before the buzzer sounded but it fell short of the net.
While Rice (18-3) heads to Saturday's championship game, the Monarchs (13-11) head home with a winning record, and the satisfaction of knowing they made a much deeper tournament run than anyone expected.
Playing in the midst of the pandemic, ODU was forced to form a bubble, in which the Monarchs avoided contact with anyone other than teammates. Even so, seven games were canceled and for a couple of weeks they did not practice.
"This has been a crazy, roller coaster ride of a season, full of adversity," said first-year coach DeLisha Milton-Jones. "But I'm proud that every young woman navigated every single rough sea that we had to cross.
"For us to be in this moment, and make the noise we did when so many people counted us out, just makes me smile."
ODU came to Frisco with just eight players and only six who usually play meaningful minutes. Rice was taller, had fresher legs and a much deeper bench. As West Division champion, Friday's game was only the second of the tournament for Rice.
The defeat ended an inspiring run for a Cinderella team that came to Texas as the East Division's sixth seed. The Monarchs defeated Western Kentucky in overtime, upset North Texas by five points and then upset Charlotte in double overtime.
Wayne, the 5-foot-10 junior guard from Birmingham, Alabama, was magnificent again for the fourth night in a row. She scored 25 points and had 17 rebounds and played the entire 40 minutes.
Twice, she willed ODU back from double-digit deficits.
She made three baskets on three possessions, all on difficult shots in heavy traffic near the basket, to help ODU trim a 16-point Rice lead in the second quarter back to single digits. She scored five of
ODU's last seven points at the end of the third quarter to again prevent Rice from pulling away to an insurmountable lead.
Wayne was often double-teamed yet averaged 22.5 points and 12.5 rebounds over the four games and left spectators wondering how she was left off of the All-Conference USA team. She missed five games this season, and Milton-Jones said missing those games probably cost her a slot on the all-league team.
She surely will be named to the all-tournament team when it is announced Saturday night.
Rice (18-3) remains the heavyweight of Conference USA. The Owls won the 2019 championship, regular-season title last season before the pandemic forced the cancelation of the C-USA tournament and the West Division title this season.
Nancy Mulkey, Rice's 6-foot-9 center, had 23 points and nine rebounds.
Milton-Jones said the missed free throws in the final seconds weren't as damaging to ODU as was a poor performance in the first half. ODU made just 9 of 37 shots (20 percent), including just 3 of 19 in the second quarter.
Milton-Jones said the Monarchs looked "discombobulated" when they took the court.
"I hate the fact that today's result came down to free throws, because for me, when I look at it as a coach, it wasn't just the last 30 seconds, it was that first 20 minutes," she said.
"We just couldn't get our footing. We were on our heels. We weren't the normal team that I was used to seeing.
"It was a different game in the second half. We took and made the shots we needed to make."
Milton-Jones said she's looking forward to next season with high hopes.
"When I look at the horizon in the future, I see it seeing it being bright and that excites me," she said. "While this moment is difficult, I am still highly encouraged about what's to come.
"I'm super excited about the future."
So is Wayne.
"We just played the league's No. 1 team and we lost by just two points," Wayne said.
"We need to come back strong next season."