Nights when the opponent isn't a rival or doesn't present the challenge of a battle for first place, a team is left to create its own energy and, at a minimum, play consistently at both ends of the floor.
Old Dominion succeeds in such areas most nights, and Tuesday exerted both force and will in an 81-64 decision at the Constant Center against a UNC Wilmington team that is young, thin and a bit undermanned.
The Monarchs (17-11, 12-4 CAA) bounced back from Saturday's disappointing loss to VCU by dispatching a lower-tier team early and matching its highest point total of the season in a regulation game.
"What we did do is beat who we could beat," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "To this point, we've really beat who we could beat and put ourselves in a pretty good spot in this league race, and I think a lot of people would like to be where we're at."
The Monarchs appear to have rented a solo suite in the CAA's second tier. Heading into the season's final two weeks, they reside in fourth place, two games clear of Georgia State, and behind the trio of Drexel, George Mason and VCU. They're 12-0 against folks on the lower floors, 0-4 against the upper floors.
Tuesday's game was markedly different than the first meeting in Wilmington, a 53-48 slog last month in which points were as precious as they were infrequent.
This time, the Monarchs not only defended and rebounded in their customary manner, they got out in transition. ODU took advantage of the absence of guard Donte Morales (illness) and early foul trouble to UNCW big men Keith Rendleman and Cedrick Williams to build a 43-24 halftime lead.
Kent Bazemore led all scorers with 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, as the Seahawks (9-17, 5-11 CAA) had no one who could check him on the perimeter or inside. Coincidentally, the Monarchs got 23 fast-break points and 55 points in the paint.
"Transition defense has been our Achilles' heel all season," Seahawks coach Buzz Peterson said.
"We've been at our best all season once we got the rebound and pushed it down, put a lot of pressure on the other team's defense," Bazemore said. "That's something we really focused on tonight, trying to get easy layups in transition."
Nick Wright was Bazemore's wing man Tuesday with 19 points, his third consecutive double-figure outing. He hit three 3-pointers after making just seven all season.
"When he gets his confidence going, he's one of the best shooters in the gym," Bazemore said. "We always fool around after practice, shooting around. He'll be hanging around with us and hit shots, and he's like, 'I told you I could shoot.' He was wide open and the guys never closed out on him, the defense from UNC Wilmington, and he made 'em pay."
Wright said that his shot "has kind of been OK throughout the year," but that Taylor tells the players not to pass up a shot if it's within the rhythm of the game.
"He tells everybody on the team," Wright said, "don't hold back a shot. If you're in rhythm, take it and we're going to rebound the ball, because that's what we do best. Tonight, it just happened to fall, and I got a little bit of luck going, and I hit a couple."
ODU took control with a 17-2 run midway through the first half, opening a 31-17 lead. The Monarchs closed the half with the final six points as Bazemore, Marquel De Lancey and Richard Ross each hit shots, and ODU scored on 14 of its final 18 possessions before halftime.
De Lancey's defense on speedy freshman Adam Smith (11 points, 3-for-13 shooting) also permitted Bazemore to find a comfort zone at both ends of the floor.
"It's getting down to the nitty gritty," Bazemore said. "We're going to win the games we're supposed to win and push into the conference tournament in a couple weeks."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun