NORFOLK, Va (ODU Athletics) – The Old Dominion men’s basketball team was, as advertised, relentless, up-tempo and fun to watch in its home opener.
Led by 6-foot-8 junior center Kalu Ezikpe, who had 21 points and 12 rebounds and reigned freely inside the lane, the Monarchs outran Virginia Wesleyan, 80-60, before a crowd of 6,037 Wednesday night at Chartway Arena.
ODU has had the reputation of playing hard-nosed defense and winning low-scoring contests but scored 96 points, the most in 3 ½ seasons, in an exhibition victory Saturday over Gannon.
They showed Monday night that it was no fluke.
ODU made 8 of 22 three-point shots, shot 52 percent overall and outscored the Marlins, 42-22, in the paint.
Coach Jeff Jones bolstered his offense in the offseason by recruiting C.J. Keyser, an All-MEAC senior transfer from North Carolina Central, and Charles Smith IV, a sophomore who transferred from SMU, where he was a three-point sharpshooter.
Both made their ODU debuts and impressed.
Keyser had 16 points and four assists, and Smith totaled eight points and two assists. Sophomore point guard Jaylin Hunter had 12 and four assists and played an excellent floor game in 31 minutes.
Ezikpe made 10 of 12 shots and added three steals and three blocked shots and most importantly of all, had no fouls. Ezikpe often got himself into foul trouble last season and said he’s determined to stay on the court this season.
Jones said the Monarchs are focused on scoring more points and hopes ODU fans will take notice.
“I think it’s important in the two games that our fans have been able to see that our guys played really hard and played well and played an exciting brand of basketball,” he said. “You want the people who come out here to enjoy themselves and start liking this team so they will continue to come out.
“We’ve got some attractive games, some games where we’re really going to need the crowd behind us. Hopefully playing well will give people a reason to come back. I hope they’ll tell their friends and family, ‘hey it’s a fun team’ and hopefully that word will spread.”
It was the first regular-season game in nearly two years in which there were no restrictions on attendance and no social distancing, and the fans responded.
The student section was nearly full, and the crowd was festive, especially in the early going, when the Monarchs made three 3-point shots in the first three minutes.
ODU put out the welcome mat before the game with hundreds of fans enjoying a band, food truck and craft beer on the south patio just outside of the Big Blue Room.
As fans entered the building, there was a steel drummer in the lobby adjacent to the ODU Sports Hall of Fame.
“It was so great to be back,” said Ilana Davlin, a long-time season-ticket holder from Virginia Beach, who was in the 4400 Club area. “I’ve really missed not being here.”
Ezipke said the Monarchs also missed their fans.
“It felt good to have the fans back,” he said. “Last year, we heard echoes instead of the crowd. Toward the end of the season, we kind of got used to it.
“Tonight, it felt a little weird, it kind of felt different, but in a good way. The fans give us motivation.”
ODU took a double-digit lead in the first half and put the game away early in the second half. Keyser made a 3-pointer with 13:04 left to give the Monarchs a 59-40 lead which they expanded to 25.
Jones emptied his bench in the final minutes, and the Monarchs finished the game with five freshmen on the court.
“Virginia Wesleyan is going to have a really good team,” Jones said. “For a Division III team, they really made us work and we responded in a good way.
“There have been some years when we’ve gotten a lead and might not have been as focused. But I thought we kept our focus offensively, continued in the attack mode and sharing the ball and scoring points.
“That’s something we are putting at a premium. Putting the ball in the basket is something we need to continue to do and continue to improve on.”
Former ODU standout Mark West, who had a long NBA career, attended Wednesday’s game and drew a large ovation when introduced. He was in Norfolk for his induction into the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame.
ODU plays again Saturday at James Madison, who will join the Monarchs in the Sun Belt Conference in 2022-23 or 2023-24. It will be ODU’s first game in the 8,500-seat Atlantic Union Bank Center, which opened last season.
The Monarchs return home Monday, Nov. 15, to host Manhattan at 7 p.m.