December 23, 2012
RICHMOND — The inaugural Governor's Holiday Hoops Classic had all the makings of a basketball bust. Three of the four teams had lost their most recent games, and the Saturday before Christmas created scheduling conflicts and traffic ordeals for fans.
But a buzzer-beating opener and stunning nightcap, not to mention a worthy cause, combined to give the event an auspicious debut.
Sherrod Wright's 3-pointer at the horn lifted George Mason over Richmond 67-64 and will make plenty of highlight reels, but the big takeaway was Old Dominion's 63-61 upset of Virginia before an announced crowd of 6,944.
The Monarchs were 1-10, riding a nine-game skid and without point guard Keenan Palmore (concussion) and sixth man Nick Wright (flu). In short, they should have been no match for a quality ACC team.
Eight-game winning streak prior to Saturday notwithstanding, the Cavaliers (9-3) didn't approach that level. They were typically tepid on offense, unusually weak on defense and outrebounded for only the second time this season.
Moreover, Virginia is 0-3 against the Colonial Athletic Association, previous losses coming to George Mason and Delaware.
"The crucial times for us came when we needed a stop (and) just to keep the ball out of the lane," Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said. "That's when Old Dominion made some plays, and either we were undisciplined and broke down, and they got to the front of the rim for a layup, or just were physical enough to get to the offensive rebounds. We just couldn't come up with a stop when we needed to."
ODU scored 20 points in the first half, 43 in the second. Dimitri Batten and Aaron Bacote made some contested 3-pointers, but Virginia contributed significantly to its own demise.
The Monarchs were especially physical and effective guarding the Cavaliers' post players, Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins, forcing them outside their comfort zone in the low block. Mitchell and Atkins had combined 12 points and 13 rebounds while missing 11-of-16 shots. Mitchell's eight points matched his season-low, and Atkins' four was his second-lowest of the year.
"We've shown at times we can be solid," Bennett said. "We've also shown at times, even in some of our victories, we've got to keep improving. … Our guys, I hope they weren't feeling themselves. 'Hey, we've won however many in a row' and all that. … But if (they were), this will certainly bring you back to reality. …
"We labored, and you could feel that."
If any team figured to labor, it was the Monarchs. Instead, they not only summoned their best effort but also found the poise that had escaped them in previous end-games.
"It's so fun to walk into the locker room and see how much joy and glee there was heading into the Christmas holidays," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said.
What the opening game lacked in atmospherics — the arena was two-thirds empty — it countered with entertainment value.
Mason and Richmond combined to make 10 of their first 12 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc, a theme that continued until Wright's shot at the horn capped an 18-3 closing run that erased a 12-point deficit and included a handful of Spiders turnovers. Wright (22 points) and Richmond's Darien Brothers (20) combined to make 15-of-24 shots, 9-of-12 from three.
Similarly, ODU's Batten and Bacote teamed for 40 points on 13-of-23 shooting. You can't ask for much better guard play than those four provided.
According to Gov. Bob McDonnell's office, Saturday's event raised the equivalent of 216,000 pounds of food for state food banks, an outpouring that pleased the boss.
"Americans are an incredibly generous people," McDonnell said during a trip to press row. "If you just show them a good cause and show them a little fun in the meantime, they'll respond. … This is such a marvelous cause, especially in a down economy."
Next year's Classic features Hampton versus James Madison, followed by VCU against Virginia Tech. Alas, the likely date again is the Saturday before Christmas, a crunch that McDonnell hopes his successors can resolve.
"We had to find a weekend that everybody had available, and unfortunately, it was right before Christmas," he said. "I'm hoping that after two good years … we'll make this a permanent event."
Distancing the doubleheader from a holiday and matching this year's games is the fool-proof formula.