NORFOLK, Va. (ODUSports.com) The Old Dominion's women's basketball program is back.
Playing in their most significant home game in more than a decade, the Monarchs upended Rice, 66-59, in a gut-wrenching overtime game Thursday night and moved into a first-place tie with the Owls.
The victory ended Rice's 30-game Conference USA winning streak and gave ODU (21-3, 11-1 C-USA) a share of the conference lead. Rice (16-7, 11-1) also has a share of first, but Thursday's victory gives ODU the tiebreaker.
ODU has a storied past that included three national championships, but is just two years removed from an 8-23 season. ODU hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2008, nor has it really been competitive in conference races in a decade.
Coach Nikki McCray-Penson, a former All-American from Tennessee, is in her third season of a mammoth rebuilding effort, and has taken the Monarchs much further in a short time than most people believed was possible.
ODU played before a charged-up crowd of 2,732. As the game ended, the fans stood chanting "ODU," while McCray and her players celebrated at mid court.
"I'm so happy for our fans," she said. "To be able to play a championship type team on our home floor, with a great atmosphere, I know that meant so much to them.
"Those fans who have been to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16, they were in the stands. They were just energized. We wanted it for them. We wanted it for our alumni. We wanted for all of the players who have worn this Old Dominion uniform and for all of the coaches who came before us.
"In order for us to be an elite team, you've got to win big games. We beat a very good basketball team tonight, a championship team.
And they fought hard and they fought hard.
"We were at home and the ball rolled our way. We got some stops when we needed to and scored some bucket in transition and that's what you've got to do."
Sophomore Ajah Wayne led ODU with 21 points, with five critical points coming in overtime. Coming off an ankle injury, she almost didn't play.
It wasn't until a few hours before game time that she was given the go-ahead to suit up. Like her teammates, she gutted out what was at times a physical game.
"Yesterday was my first day back in practice," she said. "I fought through it and prayed a lot and took treatment.
"But I knew I had to come back for my team."
Amari Young had 15 points and 11 rebounds and Taylor Edwards had 14 points.
ODU took an early 20-12, went into halftime tied 28-28 and held the lead most of the second half.
Victoria Morris made a 3-pointer with 4:56 left in the game to give the Monarchs a 55-51 lead, but then ODU's shooters went ice cold. ODU did not score again in regulation and was fortunate to make it into overtime.
ODU missed four shots in the final 1:02 of regulation that could have won the game.
ODU's offense came to life in overtime as Wayne made two foul shots and a jumper, and then Morris drilled a fallaway 3-pointer with 1:41 left that gave the Monarchs a 62-55 lead and plunged a dagger into Rice's comeback hopes.
"Victoria didn't have a great game shooting, but she hit the shot, she hit the big shot that gave us so much energy," McCray said.
Young finished with 8 points.
ODU's defense, rated first in Conference USA, frustrated the Rice offense. The only Owl who scored consistently was Erica Ogwumike, the C-USA Player of the Year in 2019 who scored 26 points and had 18 rebounds.
ODU at times shell shocked Rice with a fast-break attack that led to numerous ODU layups. It was a tempo Rice isn't accustomed to playing and the Owls often couldn't keep up with.
ODU is 12-0 at home and has won nine in a row with five games left to play. The conference regular-season championship may not be decided until March 7, when ODU finishes the regular season at Rice.
Wayne said ODU needs to celebrate tonight, and then get focused on North Texas, the Monarchs' opponent Saturday afternoon.
But Thursday night, she was clearly enjoying the win.
"The atmosphere tonight was just great," she said. "We would score and the cheers would energize us to play defense.
"We hadn't beaten Rice before. We're trying to turn the program around and this was a big win for us.
"I think people are paying attention to us now."