NEW YORK –
They were a No. 5 seed.
It was the furthest they’ve ever advanced in a postseason tournament.
They were in the NIT semifinals for the first time in school history.
That’s right, I’m talking about Old Dominion.
A small Division-I school in Norfolk, Va., the Monarchs played NCAA Tournament Cinderella team George Mason, and NCAA Tournament bubble team Hofstra during the regular season.
When the NIT selection committee seeded the Monarchs fifth, few people could have predicted they would be able to advance all the way to Madison Square Garden, but they did.
And that’s where the magical story ended.
Last night, Old Dominion jogged onto the Madison Square Garden court with little chance of beating the more talented and deeper Michigan team.
Still, the Monarchs started the game determined to prove that they belonged with the Michigans, South Carolinas and Louisvilles of college basketball.
Old Dominion jumped out to an early 21-14 lead, but that’s when the ship started to sink. The Monarchs suffered through an eight-minute drought late in the first half and allowed Michigan to wake up. Then junior forward Arnaud Dahi went down with what team doctors believed to be a torn ACL. To put the finishing touch on the loss, the team’s leading scorer, senior guard Isaiah Hunter, made just one of 15 shots.
In the end, the Wolverines were just too strong for Old Dominion. They out-jumped, out-ran and out-muscled the Monarchs. If a player fell to the court, he more than likely had Old Dominion stitched into his jersey.
Even with the odds stacked against them, the Monarchs came out of the locker room at halftime and showed the resilience of a team not ready to end its season. Old Dominion fought back and erased a nine-point halftime deficit to tie the score at 35 just over four minutes into the second frame.
And that’s the difference between Michigan and Old Dominion. An NIT championship means a lot more to the latter.
After the game, Monarchs coach Blaine Taylor almost broke down into tears when asked about how much he would miss his seniors next year.
He then compared New York City and Madison Square Garden to places of lore.
“In some respects, it was a dream come true,” Taylor said. “I think particularly where we came from, to be one of the last eight teams standing in the land and then all of a sudden to land in a magical place, I feel like Alice in Wonderland a little bit.”
Was a second trip to New York City in three years a dream come true for the Wolverines?
Following Michigan’s quarterfinal victory over Miami, the team expressed its gratitude to be able to return to Madison Square Garden and compete for the chance to win a championship.
But they admitted that it wouldn’t be the same as an NCAA Tournament berth. It was still the second-rate NIT.
For most Wolverine fans, this year’s NIT run has been more than a disappointment. Many students boycotted the three Michigan home games, and Wolverine fans in the Garden couldn’t even come close to the decibel level of the Monarch faithful.
Before the game, members of the Old Dominion band heckled Michigan about the fact that it was in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament.
And they never stopped cheering for their Monarchs.
The Old Dominion fans probably knew coming into the game that a Monarch victory was improbable. But they still enjoyed the chance to watch their team step onto a national stage.
As one of their fans prominently displayed a sign reading, “ODU and George Mason, why not?”
For a school like Old Dominion, a berth to the NIT championship game would have registered a reaction similar to that of the George Mason fans after its unheralded run to the NCAA Final Four. The Monarchs were the underdogs, the team that didn’t belong. But they still fought to play another day.
For graduating Old Dominion senior Alex Loughton, the final score won’t be what he remembers the most about his last chance to suit up for the Monarchs.
“(I want to hold close to my memory) the way we fought to get here,” Loughton said. “I think that’s going to stick out in my mind more than the end result tonight. (I’m) just really proud of the boys and the way we handled ourselves this year through the ups and downs.”
Sounds like something Michigan seniors Daniel Horton or Chris Hunter would say if they had lost their last game as a Wolverine … in the NCAA Tournament.
– Kevin Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.