NORFOLK — The Constant Center was nearly vacant late Thursday as Old Dominion coach Jeff Jones leaned back in a chair and took one more exasperated look at the evening's box score.
"From where we started," he said, "we've taken big strides. But we can be better — now."
Jones the teacher is patient. Jones the competitor is not. And that was the rub as he decompressed inside the coaches' locker room.
ODU lost to Southern Mississippi on Thursday, 75-60, the Monarchs' first setback in four Conference USA outings. With an AARP starting lineup of four seniors and a redshirt junior, the Golden Eagles are older, stronger and better than Jones' peach-fuzz bunch, but disparities aside, he sensed an opportunity lost.
This was ODU's first home game in its new league, and the crowd of 7,549 was lively. Most important, so were the Monarchs, outrebounding Southern Miss, seizing momentum on back-to-back Richard Ross dunks to open the second half and leading 52-51 with less than 10 minutes remaining.
A late January victory certainly wouldn't have defined the season, but it would have been a benchmark moment. Tame non-conference opponents such as Jackson State, South Alabama and Houston Baptist duly noted, the Golden Eagles arrived with a gaudy 16-3 record, a recent conquest of Conference USA preseason favorite Louisiana Tech and confidence rooted in last season's 27-10 record and NIT quarterfinal appearance.
Moreover, ODU had not started 4-0 in league play since 2005, when the Monarchs went 28-6, won the Colonial Athletic Association championship and gave Michigan State fits in the NCAA tournament. This season's team isn't nearly as skilled as the '05 squad, but it's progressed markedly from the 5-25 environmental hazard Jones inherited from former coach Blaine Taylor.
"His kids play as hard as any team we've faced this year," Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall said of Jones.
Hard wasn't good enough as the Neil Watson-led Golden Eagles outscored the Monarchs 24-8 during the final nine minutes, giving Jones and his players plenty to ponder in the short time before Saturday's visit from Tulane.
"I thought their guys in the last six minutes looked very confident," Jones said, "and we were just kind of hanging on."
The undersized Ross, posterized in the first half by a filthy Michael Craig throw down, scrapped his way to 11 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Aaron Bacote made 5-of-10 shots from beyond the 3-point arc but missed all four of his attempts inside against the bigger Golden Eagles (17-3, 4-1).
Southern Miss' brawn was particularly evident when redshirt freshman guard Ambrose Mosley drove the lane in the first half, only to get stonewalled by 6-foot-7 senior Daveon Boardingham. All Boardingham did was plant, raise his arms and absorb contact from the airborne Mosley, who bounced off Boardingham and down to the floor.
"Ultimately, I thought they wore us down," Jones said, virtually grinding his teeth at the 17 ODU turnovers Southern Miss converted into 32 points.
The Monarchs (9-10, 3-1) have nearly doubled last season's win total, but Jones craves more. He wants Dimitri Batten to work harder, Denzell Taylor to play as well as he practices, and Bacote to make smarter decisions when he penetrates.
The remainder of the season, Jones said, hinges on one question: "How will we learn?"
Learn how to handle success and adversity. Learn how to execute end-game possessions. Learn how to better understand X and O concepts.
How much the Monarchs learned Thursday will be partially evident Saturday. Tulane (11-9, 3-2) isn't in Southern Miss' class and a quality effort should produce ODU's 10th victory.
Jones resisted raised-voice theatrics with his team Thursday, and Friday was reserved for recharging physically and mentally.
"Making them feel bad isn't going to make us any better," he said.
Jones had no illusions when he left job security and a solid American University program last spring for greater upside but considerable rebuilding at ODU. He knew there'd be nights like this.
"It's painful," Jones said. "It's not fun."
Yet as he donned a charcoal overcoat and braced for the sub-freezing January air, Jones managed a smile. The next game was less than 48 hours away.