By any measure, this season ranks among the best in Old Dominion's three-plus decades of Division I basketball.
But it wasn't quite good enough.
Such are the program's lofty standards under coach Blaine Taylor. Such were the reasonable goals for a team that returned four starters from last year's second-round NCAA tournament run.
"We had hopes of making it to the Sweet 16 at least," senior forward Keyon Carter said. "That was the minimum we wanted to achieve."
Career over, dreams dashed, Carter spoke stoically Thursday afternoon following ODU's wrenching 60-58 NCAA tournament loss to Butler.
The Monarchs' locker room was noticeably free of the tears and red eyes that marked last season's elimination loss to Baylor. Perhaps they were numb from Matt Howard's loose-ball, buzzer-beating layup; perhaps they were angry about their own shortcomings.
"We picked a really bad time to play a poor game," Carter said.
Indeed, the staples of the nine-game winning streak ODU carried into Thursday vanished. Fierce rebounding, efficient offense and accurate shooting.
The national leaders in rebounding margin at plus-12.2, the Monarchs were outboarded (32-29) for only the second time. They shot 35.6 percent, a grim 22.7 in the second half. They committed 15 turnovers, three above their norm.
ODU had not been outrebounded since a Jan. 13 loss at Drexel, a stretch of 17 games and more than two months.
"I would have never guessed that (was possible) in a million years," Carter said. "When I saw the scouting report, I thought this would be a routine Old Dominion victory. …
"As badly as we played, it speaks to our resiliency that we were able to stay so close."
How close? Try 10 ties, 21 lead changes and no margin above six points.
As it should have been. These two "mid-majors" are that good, that similar, that fearless.
"It was a man's game," Taylor said.
A game decided on a freakish sequence in which ODU swarmed Shawn Vanzant, whose flip teammate Andrew Smith volleyballed to the weakside, where Howard was uncontested.
"He closed his eyes, slipped and threw up a prayer," Hassell said. "I should have fought harder on the backside."
A year ago, Butler's prayer went unanswered as Gordon Hayward's midcourt heave to slay Duke in the national championship game just missed.
"We showed that just because of what they did last year, we weren't afraid of them," Hassell said.
No, fear wasn't the issue. Butler's 18 offensive rebounds and 28 points in the paint were.
Among the most damaging: Six points and five offensive boards for reserve Garrett Butcher, who averages 1.6 points and 1.3 rebounds.
After one unchallenged Butcher stickback, Taylor blistered the Monarchs during a timeout, and rightfully so. Butcher is 6-foot-7 and reed-thin, not some wide-body.
"Their coach (Brad Stevens) did a great job scouting us," ODU guard Kent Bazemore said. "They found holes in our defense. They kind of us had us off balance all night."
The Monarchs played mostly zone defense, baiting the Bulldogs into 26 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc. But those misses created long rebounds, to which ODU seemed a half-step slow throughout.
Down 58-52 with 2:43, the Monarchs appeared spent. But two Hassell post moves and two knee-knocking free throws from Bazemore knotted the score with 31.2 seconds remaining.
"I'm thinking if we can just get it to overtime we're going to win," Carter said.
"Overtime would have definitely been ours," Bazemore said.
But there was no overtime. No Saturday date with No. 1 regional seed and Big East regular-season champion Pittsburgh. No making of ODU history by advancing in consecutive NCAA tournaments.
"Right now, we're kind of heartbroken," Taylor said.
After upsetting Notre Dame and falling to Baylor in the 2010 NCAAs, the Monarchs knew they were poised for a similar run this season. But now Carter, Hassell, Darius James and Ben Finney are exiting.
Moreover, with jobs such as North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Utah and Oklahoma open, Taylor may be on the market, too.
"I should probably give them my house and my car, if it was legal," Taylor said of his seniors, who won 97 games in four years.
But for all the good times …
"I'm always going to wonder, and they're always going to wonder," Taylor said, "if we couldn't have advanced even further."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun