The two best teams on this side of the bracket lined up for the biggest game of the day. With Middle down, the prize opponent is clear: Marshall. If it wasn’t unclear, the just-recently victorious Dan D’Antoni and staff sat across from the ODU bench in the VIP seats doing a little scouting for the big game on Saturday evening.
For their part, both teams came in looking good. ODU outlasted Louisiana Tech in a tough game that is their style. The WKU squad looked like the best team given the opponent (a talented UAB team) and the way in which they played (tourney record 98 points).
What could be better than perhaps the most talented team in the league against a tough, talented defensive power?
CUSA is a lot of things but this season it has been entertaining.
The early game was as advertised. Justin Johnson dunked and then looked at the pro-WKU crowd. Trey Porter answered with one to the roar of the small, but vocal ODU contingent.
The timeouts were quietly intense.
At one point on a seal from Trey Porter that resulted in a pair of FTs, Dan D’Antoni turned to his fellow coaches and pointed out a strategic point.
After the brief time that ODU led 16-11, WKU woke up, and went on a run sparked by Justin Johnson (who else?) getting two straight buckets with contact. The steady stream of WKU attacks at the rim were helped by Trey Porter sitting with 2 early fouls. What was more difficult for ODU was the league’s second most efficient offense struggled to get buckets. There were questionable referee decisions, but this is CUSA and that is the normal state of things.
No surprises here. No complaining to the refs when in the semi-final against WKU, folks.
The simple fact was that Trey Porter was sitting and ODU needed him. Justin Johnson and company were taking it to the Monarchs. Johnson and Coleby had 6 rebounds each at the half.
Trey Porter got back in and suddenly ODU looked themselves, but WKU was already on a roll and attacking the basket with abandon.
Still, Porter got two quick buckets and Caver and Brandan Stith got jumpers because TP was rolling to the hoop. Such is the power of a great player. Halfway through the second period we had the grinding three point game we expected, with WKU up 38-35.
A couple of notes: Josh Anderson has hops, and Xavier Green’s first points were a dunk that seemed to relieve a bunch of tension.
The lead changed hands but the game remained ugly WKU took the lead back from ODU and held it despite shooting 23.5% in the half up the the 3:35 mark. Old Dominion had trouble getting the ball to Porter against WKU’s handsy defense. The Hilltoppers were tipping each pass and cutting off every drive. Eventually ODU would manage an occasional bucket through what sometimes seemed sheer luck.
Haynes dived in the corner for a wayward ball and found his man under the rim for the easier bucket in ages.
In the end it was the senior Justin Johnson who stepped up and made the biggest buckets when it counted. His step back three all but sealed the game. Afterward, Head Coach Rick Stansbury said “You think I drew up that step back three? You got to let the players play.”
That freedom and a harrassing defense that made it difficult for ODU to find their best player more often, are why Western are into the final against Marshall.
Stansbury had effusive praise of the Monarchs, advocating for their inclusion in some postseason tournament and mentioning the NIT by name.
For their part, the Monarchs did not get enough when they needed it. They simply did not have the guard play to hit the long range stuff that propels postseason runs.
Everything was a grind. Usually that favors ODU but Stansbury said in the post game that “at this time of year? I love a slugfest. Holding ODU to 49 points? That a season low?”
No one in the room had an answer for him. (It was a season low).
The ebullient crowd helped things. Asked about the support from the fans Justin Johnson said “Yes we sold out Diddle three times. You see how well we travel. I’ve gotten a lot of texts from people saying they’re buying plane tickets. There might be a lot more red out there.”
He also noted that when ODU went in runs, there wasn’t as much crowd support “but when we did, you can hear our fans.”
Contrasting the leadership of Justin Johnson was Trey Porter. Late in the contest, Porter was ejected for committing his fifth on a cheap bump of Hollingsworth. It was silly, and mostly frustration but it symbolically an ugly end to a great game and season for the guy.