(Courtesy: Harry Minium, ODU Sports)

PENSACOLA, Fla. – The Old Dominion women’s basketball team shook off a rocky start and held off a furious Georgia State rally to win its Sun Belt Conference Tournament opener Wednesday afternoon.

Led by a season-high 16 points from graduate transfer Jatyjia Jones, the Monarchs slipped past Georgia State, 66-56, at the Pensacola Bay Center. It was the third victory in three tries for ODU (21-11) over the Panthers (12-21)

The fifth-seeded Monarchs, who had a first-round bye, are off on Thursday and then take on fourth-seeded Troy Friday at 3 p.m. Eastern time in the quarterfinals. The semifinals are held Sunday and the championship game Monday at 2 p.m. Eastern.

Troy (17-12), the only Sun Belt team the Monarchs did not play this season, finished in a three-way tie for fourth place with ODU and Georgia Southern and won the tiebreaker to claim the fourth seed. The Trojans entered the final two weeks of the season having won 11 of their last 13 games. However, they suffered some late-season injuries and lost three of their last four games.

ODU needed all hands on deck to win on a night when Amari Young, the team’s best player, did not shoot well.

Jordan McLaughlin scored 13 points and Makayla Dickens all 11 of her points in a two-minute stretch at the end of the third quarter and the early seconds of the fourth. Young scored 11 and had a game-high 10 rebounds.

Jones, a transfer from Memphis, and Dickens, who transferred from Boston College, are graduate students who have never won a championship. This is their last chance to win a championship ring.

“It’s my last go around,” Jones said. “So I either give it my all or go home and I chose to give it my all because I do not want to go home.”

Jones made her third start of the season and began quickly, scoring the first five points of the game. But the Monarchs struggled in the first half, committing 10 turnovers. ODU held a precarious lead much of the first half and the score was tied, 25-25, a minute into the second half when the Monarchs finally got the fast-break cranked up and rolled to a double-digit lead.

Jones made a three-point shot and then a fast break layup, Young followed with a layup and McLaughlin with a three-pointer to push ODU to a 35-25 lead. Meanwhile, the Monarchs held Georgia State scoreless nearly six minutes during one stretch of the third quarter.

The Panthers cut the lead to seven with a minute left in the third quarter, but then Dickens went on her run. She made a three-pointer, a short jumper and another three-pointer to end the quarter. She then swished a three-pointer 22 seconds into the fourth quarter to give ODU a 48-34 advantage.

Jones then extended the lead to 16 with 8:30 left.

Dickens missed her first three shots of the game but said her teammates and coaches encouraged her to keep shooting.

“I was kind of getting in my head about it,” she said. “But just hearing the positive words from them, and knowing that they believe in me to take a shot when I’m open. I just remembered that and let it go and it went in.”

But Georgia State came roaring back, largely from the free-throw line, and pulled within two of the Monarchs, 55-53, on two free throws from Mikyla Tolivert with 3:03 left.

Jada Duckett then made the first of two free throws and missed the second, but Young grabbed the rebound. That set up a jump shot from McLaughlin, who made the shot, was fouled and made the free throw to extend the lead to six, 59-53, with 2:30 left.

Tehya Lyons scored a three-point play to trim the ODU lead to three, but Jones responded on the other end with a layup and the Monarchs did not allow the Panthers to score again.

Head coach DeLisha Milton-Jones said she was not surprised that Georgia State rallied after being down 16 points.

“We expect this type of environment when everyone is fighting to stay alive,” she said. “But I thought we showed great discipline, especially in the moments when we needed it most.

“I’m pleased with the overall effort. We got one game down. It feels very good to have a win on the first day of March.”

ODU was fortunate to not be down after a poor showing in the first half. Not only did the Monarchs commit 10 turnovers, they made just 8 of 25 shots and had mental breakdowns at the end of the first and second quarters.

The Monarchs failed to box out at the end of the first, and gave up a rebound and easy layup to Zay Dyer as the buzzer sounded. They had the ball with 23 seconds left in the second quarter but failed to get a shot off.

Milton-Jones has been known to blister her team after a poor first-half experience.

“But they’ve heard that enough from me,” she said. “We’re in the postseason. We talked about what we needed to fix, what we needed to do better, and our players went out and did what we asked of them.”