FRISCO, Texas (Harry Minium, ODUSports.com) - College basketball tournaments are Darwinian in nature. Win and move on or lose and go home, goes the old saying.
So far, the Old Dominion University women's basketball team has refused to go home.
With six players playing nearly every minute for the second night in a row, ODU upset North Texas, 71-66, Wednesday afternoon in the first round of the Conference USA tournament at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas.
ODU rallied from a 5-point deficit with 22.9 seconds left and defeated Western Kentucky in overtime in Tuesday's preliminary round.
On Wednesday, the sixth-seeded Monarchs led the third-seeded Mean Green most of the second half behind an inspired effort from Ajah Wayne. The 5-foot-10 junior guard from Birmingham, Alabama, scored 26 points, made 11 of 15 shots and had 16 rebounds and four steals.
The Monarchs (12-10), who guaranteed themselves a winning record, meet Charlotte Thursday in the C-USA quarterfinals at 12:30 p.m. The 49ers (10-9) won five of their last seven games to finish second in the East Division.
The game will be televised by ESPN+.
Wayne said she is in part inspired because of ODU's experience last season in Frisco, when, as the Monarchs were preparing at their hotel to board their bus for their first game, they learned that the tournament had been canceled because of the pandemic.
"We were all pumped. We knew we had a great shot at winning," she said. "Having that game taken from us, that gave us some momentum" in this tournament.
"It was taken from us last year, so we're trying to get it this year," she added.
The winner of six of its last seven games, ODU did not clinch this contest until the final minute. UNT (13-7) trimmed what had been a 7-point ODU lead to two, 63-61, on two foul shots from Emma Villas-Gomis with 2:01 left.
ODU then spread out its offense. Seeing a hole in UNT's zone defense, Wayne juked one way and ran the other, caught a perfectly delivered pass from Amari Young and made a layup to give ODU a 4-point lead.
Wayne and Young then combined again to clinch the game with 26.1 seconds left. Inbounding from in front of the UNT bench, Wayne saw Young streaking up the court and fired a long pass just over the outstretched hands of a defender.
Young hauled in the pass like a wide receiver, made the layup, was fouled and swished the free throw to give the Monarchs an insurmountable 68-61 lead with 23 seconds left.
"Amari is the most athletic person I've ever seen," Wayne said. "I knew if I just threw it in the air, I had all the confidence in the world that she was going to go get it. And she got it."
ODU's razor-thin depth was tested in the second half when Mariah Adams, who led ODU with 20 points against Western Kentucky, went to the bench with her fifth foul with 7:07 left. Adams scored 11 points.
Young also had four fouls but played the rest of the way without issue.
For the second night in a row, the Monarchs were more poised and more energetic than their opponents down the stretch.
"The woman of the hour was definitely Ajah Wayne," ODU coach DeLisha Milton-Jones said. "She was everything for us.
"In the first half, she kept us in the game with her grit and her hard work and her resiliency."
Wayne had a double-double midway through the second quarter and had 15 points and 13 rebounds at halftime.
Wayne's most memorable basket of the game came three minutes into the third quarter, when she drove to the basket, was spun around by a defender but made a backwards layup with just the right touch of English. That tied the score at 33-33.
ODU then grabbed the lead for good, 35-33, on a Maggie Robinson layup with 6:05 left in the third quarter. Victoria Morris pushed the lead to six, 48-42, on a three-point shot with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
Morris scored just three points in the first half but finished with 17. Led by Wayne, ODU outrebounded the taller Mean Green, 46-28.
ODU lost twice to Charlotte during the regular season, including a 102-95 double overtime defeat in Norfolk in which the depth-depleted Monarchs played four minutes of the first overtime and the entire second OT with just four players.
Wayne was injured and did not play against Charlotte that night or three nights later, when the Monarchs lost to Charlotte in one overtime.
"We had the opportunity to win both games," Milton-Jones said.
"This is definitely a special team. Even though we're only eight players deep, this is a very special team."
ODU was an underdog Wednesday and will be as long as the Monarchs keep playing. Milton-Jones says that's fine with her.
"Our players have bought into that mentality. They're calling themselves the underdogs," she said, emphasizing the last word.
"And this is what underdogs do. When you have that kind of mentality, and it permeates throughout the team, when everyone is fighting with that same kind of grit, you have that mental toughness that's required to go down and take down those Goliaths."
ODU would need to win three more games to win the league championship and go to the NCAA tournament. Asked if ODU can win three more, Wayne said, "definitely."
"They say you've got nothing to lose when you're the underdog," she said.
"But we've got everything to win."