– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
FRISCO, Texas — Rice women’s head coach Tina Langley came to Houston with the program at its lowest point since leaving the Western Athletic Conference. Old Dominion men’s head coach Jeff Jones took over a proud basketball program five years ago, taking them near the top of the conference in almost every season but coming up short when the NCAA Tournament was on the line in March.
After Saturday night, the what-ifs and maybes surround the programs have been replaced by exclamation points and tears of joy.
Both No. 1 seeds completed their dominance of Conference USA by winning the conference tournament at The Ford Center at The Star, with Rice putting a cherry on top of a perfect C-USA season and heading into the Big Dance on a 21-game winning streak, the second-longest active streak in D-1.
“I’m just grateful to be able to go through this journey with these kids,” said fourth-year Rice head coach Tina Langley, a former assistant at the University of Maryland. “It was amazing just watching them celebrate. A lot of hard work we’ve done so far and excited to keep going through it with them.”
Rice, who last made the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and will be making its third-ever appearance in the tourney, was 9-22 in Langley’s first season in 2015-16. Since then, three consecutive 20-win seasons have followed, spurred on by two program-changing players in guard Erica Ogwumike — the younger sister of former Stanford standouts and current WNBA All-Stars Nneka and Chiney — and 6-foot-9 center Nancy Mulkey, a former McDonald’s All-American who transferred from the University of Oklahoma.
It was Mulkey who dominated the Lady Raiders inside to the tune of 24 points, five rebounds and a tournament-record eight blocked shots, as the Owls turned around a 39-31 deficit in the third quarter.
Speaking of turning around deficits, the Old Dominion men’s team played with fire in their first two games of the tournament, overcoming an 11-point second-half deficit in its quarterfinal win against No. 8 Louisiana Tech before overturning a nine-point deficit in the final 4:46 to see off No. 5 UAB. In both games prior to Saturday, the Monarchs hit game-winning shots in the final four seconds, but did not have to rely on late-game heroics against the Hilltoppers.
In each of the last five seasons, Jones has led the Monarchs to at least 12 conference victories and at least a third-place finish in the regular season, but had also experienced conference tournament disappointment each year until Saturday.
After the game I was kind of just sitting off to the side seeing the joy in their faces and knowing how dad gum hard they’ve worked for so long,” said Jones, who was seen sobbing into a towel almost immediately after the win. “At times we can be a mess on the offensive end, but our guys don’t allow that to affect us in any of the effort categories.”
The Monarchs shot under 40 percent against Western and shot just 39.4 percent from the field in the three games, but were able to make their last three shots from the floor and their last six free throws to seal the victory. Guard Xavier Green led Old Dominion with 14 points on his way to winning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Saturday night’s action, with all photos taken by Dallas-area photographer Ross James. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 41 pictures in total.