FRISCO, Texas (Release via ODU athletics) – Winning the Conference USA women’s basketball Tournament with your best player on the bench wearing a knee brace, and two other key players on crutches, was never going to be easy.
But a third-quarter scoring outburst from North Texas guard Aly Gamez, a transfer from Fresno State, made it a very steep climb.
The graduate student from Irving, Texas, scored 18 points in the third quarter, including four three-pointers in four consecutive possessions, as the Mean Green eliminated Old Dominion from the Conference USA Tournament, 65-58, Thursday afternoon at the Ford Center at the Star.
The season likely isn’t over for ODU (23-9), which appears all but certain to play in the WNIT next week. But the WNIT is not what this team wanted.
Picked to finish second in the league, the Monarchs wanted to go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years.
“Ending the season the way we did, it’s disappointing,” coach DeLisha Milton-Jones said. “It’s very disappointing. We so much wanted to go dancing in the NCAA Tournament.
“But if we get a bid to the WNIT then we will accept that with nothing but pride and honor. We’re going to set our sights on going to win it.”
Injuries were costly to ODU this season.
ODU lost Maggie Robinson and Taleah Washington to injuries that required surgery. Robinson was a returning starter and Washington, a transfer from Syracuse, was playing well when she went down with an injury. Then, Ajah Wayne, the team’s best player, tore her ACL a week ago in ODU’s regular-season home finale.
Her season appeared done once the injury was diagnosed. She is scheduled for surgery later this month.
But Wayne put on a knee brace and told Milton-Jones she wanted to play. She practiced the last few days and participated in warmups in Wednesday’s victory over UTSA.
With ODU trailing by 15 points at the end of the third quarter, Milton-Jones inserted her into the lineup.
Inspired by their team leader, the Monarchs staged a near-miraculous comeback. They forced nine turnovers and trimmed the lead to six with 1:15 left.
But with North Texas milking the clock, the Monarchs were forced to foul, and the Mean Green made all four free throws to ice the victory.
ODU squandered many of the nine turnovers the Monarchs forced in the fourth quarter.
“We’d come down and bobble the ball out of bounds,” Milton-Jones said. “We’d come down and put a shot up with two or three people on us rather than get it out to wide open shooters.
“I think we were doing everything in desperation. We rushed things.”
Milton-Jones said she was in awe of Wayne’s courage.
“Weezy is our foundation, our heart and our soul,” she said, referring to Wayne’s nickname. “And I told her in the final huddle we had on the court, ‘you’re just built differently.’ I salute you today for being a wounded warrior and still able to come out and give something,
“We put her in, and miraculous things happened. We actually had a chance to win the game. My goodness, I love her, I love her.”
Milton-Jones did not consent to her playing until ODU’s training and medical staff approved.
“I did it all for my love of basketball and for my team,” Wayne said. “You do everything you can to try to win.”
ODU grabbed an early five-point lead and trailed by one at the half. But then Gamez caught fire.
She made four three-pointers in a two-minute stretch that gave the Mean Green a 56-50 lead, and then her fifth and final three-pointer of the period built the lead to 19, 53-34.
Gamez had 18 points in the third quarter and a game high 29 points.
Amari Young trimmed the margin to 15 with two baskets in the final minute of the third quarter, but even that was just too much for ODU to overcome.
“Even in defeat, I’m so proud of my team and everything they accomplished,” Milton-Jones said.
“Special things happened this season. We had an overhaul, adding 10 new players to the roster. Then, you have me in my second year as a coach. There was a lot of newness that’s involved, so much change.
“Usually, it’s hard to get to the top of the mountain when you have so many obstacles. But we came together and made everything work
“For us to say we had 23 wins this season, with a completely new roster, a completely new coaching staff, what these young ladies did is just amazing.”
Although Monarch fans were outnumbered in the arena, the Monarchs had some some high-profile supporters. Former ODU All-American Nancy Lieberman attended the game, as did the men’s basketball team, which was eliminated from the tournament Wednesday night.
“Isn’t it awesome that you have a legend of her status come support your squad?” Milton-Jones said. “That’s pretty damn cool.
“And the men’s basketball team, that’s beautiful. That’s (coach) Jeff Jones. He’s a classy guy. He’s always going to do something that represents the university well. That touches me.”