Game 081:(1) Old Dominion 73, (2) Virginia Commonwealth 66 (OT) CAA Championship Monday, March 7, 2005 Richmond Coliseum - Richmond, VA
I wish that I had the words to describe the marked contrast between February to March, the shock of that annual transition. Games in the shortest month have varying degrees of magnitude; all of a sudden, every final buzzer leaves dead dreams in its wake.
Where earlier in the season there were just concession stands, there are now beer gardens with Astroturf carpets, stern gatekeepers separating the Bud Light-swilling residents from the innocent children. There are free samples of male-targeted products, mostly soaps with brisk scents. There are offers of free gifts if you apply for credit cards (just remember to give a fake Social), and piles of logo merchandise for inflated prices.
But there are conference tournament games, and then there are title games. When you fling the doors open at the Richmond Coliseum on the night of the Colonial Athletic Association's championship contest, you'll notice the difference. The press row is two tables deep, and there are carefully-managed student sections on either side of the floor, each roughly the size of one court-storming. Both pep bands play at the same time in a cacophonous one-up battle that neither side could ever truly win. The Old Dominion band does "Give Up The Funk" while the VCU band tears into a simultaneous rendition of "Rock & Roll, Part 2" - that, to me, typifies the sound of March Madness.
It bears little resemblance to the game that's been played all season. It takes one's breath away, and may even drive one to become breathless and insipid, to the point of uttering absurdities such as "awesome, baby." At a conference title game, Dickie V's signature phrase makes all the sense of pure religion.
At least the product on the floor is the same... well, okay, actually it isn't. Every possession is cheered, booed, analyzed to death after its passage. Four-minute TV timeouts stretch the limits of patience, band endurance, cheerleader choreography. And there are cameras, cameras everywhere. There are more folks in the building, and there are even more watching at home on TV.
Early March brings many new fans to the fold: the welll-meaning residents of Woodwork City. They know even more about basketball than the officials whose performance over the regular season has earned them the right to preside over this title game. You're awful!Where's the foul?C'mon, that's a walk! But that's okay, if they hang around long enough they'll remember that games have flow and rhythm, and that every single sequence contains at least two transgressions - if you look hard enough.
But in a strong mid-major league like the CAA, fans at title games are true, paying, bleeding supporters. Nearly all are students and alums, instead of folks who bought team sweatshirts at Champs Sports because they looked cool. They cheer louder and stronger. Men place their testosterone levels in the hands of 12 virtual strangers and their coach - rooters of the victors walk out of the building with assured swagger, while the losers slink away into the night, offering excuses more often heard in bedrooms. "Happens to all guys sometimes," they might say as they mourn the inferior play of a team that just couldn't get it up that night.
And so, on a warm March evening, two schools that form the Norfolk-Richmond axis of the rapidly-growing CAA fought in the conference's hometown. The conference's 20th annual ticket to the NCAA Tournament eas on the line. Virginia Commonwealth, although owning the lower seed, played the role of defending champion and home team. Old Dominion had dominated the conference all year, and was looking for its first CAA title since they won three of six in the mid-Nineties.
Out of the gate, both teams traded blows, each virtual haymaker provoking thunderous applause by either side of the arena. The Monarchs of ODU overcame cold shooting with solid defense, and soon overtook their opponents. At the half, the self-proclaimed Ol' Dirty University had a 29-22 lead.
Virginia Commonwealth's hallmark this season has been their ability to manufacture precisely-executed, damaging runs - at the 15 minute mark, the Rams unleashed a perfect example of their spurtability. Down by 11 with 16 minutes remaining, VCU broke off a 14-2 run that gave them the lead just five minutes later. Back and forth they went, neither team gaining an advantage of more than three points for the remainder of regulation.
It's worth noting that had the game ended in forty minutes, the Rams would have clearly deserved the win. Old Dominion played uninspired and listless basketball for nearly the entirety of the second half, and the game stayed tight due more to VCU errors than ODU effort.
But the Monarchs' fuse was finally lit by CAA player of the year and soon-to-be tournament MVP Alex Loughton. He drove the lane hard with just under a minute to go, converted the shot and was fouled. That three-point play tied the score at 55, and set up the intrigue of the extra session.
In overtime, Loughton scored six of his 28 points. But the Aussie big man was seemingly everywhere on the floor, freeing up room for shooters and grabbing rebounds and forcing held-ball stalemates. On a night when his fellow whiteclads were seemingly shaken by the title game pressure, big number 40 stepped up and took over. The Rams staged one final stand, hitting a series of three-pointers, but Old Dominion stood firm at the line.
And when it was over, the dark blue student section to the right poured out onto the floor, while the yellow student section packed up and quickly left the arena. ESPN quickly left as well - they showed 60 seconds of the celebration, then it was off to St. Louis for the Missouri Valley title game.
But in Richmond, the celebration continued. A ladder was set up at one end of the floor, and Loughton sat upon its top step and took the first snippet of twine. The other Monarch players followed; as is tradition, Blaine Taylor took the last cut, twirling the net over his head in victory as the happy students chanted their approval and shook their fists. O! D! U! O! D! U!
Congratulations to the Old Dominion Monarchs, champions of the Colonial Athletic Association for 2005, victors in the league's title game.