In the post-game melee, a life-size cutout of Frank Hassell loomed over the Old Dominion fans celebrating on the court at the Richmond Coliseum.
The home-made likeness was attention-grabbing, but the real deal was even bigger.
Hassell had 22 points as the second-seeded Monarchs (27-6) held off a furious rally from No. 4 seed VCU (23-11) to win their second straight Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship, 70-65, on Monday night.
"Two is always better than one," said junior guard Kent Bazemore, who had 14 points and joined Hassell, the most outstanding player, on the all-tournament team. "It's why we focused all summer, lifting four times a week, running three times a week."
The Monarchs were assured of an NCAA tournament berth no matter Monday's outcome and will learn their NCAA destination and opponent in Sunday's selection show.
Hassell, who's averaged 19 points and 10.5 rebounds in the Monarchs' last eight games, came within one rebound of his eighth double-double in his last nine contests. He scored 14 points in the first half, in which ODU shot 63.6 percent.
ODU led 46-28 with 16:35 to play before an 11-0 VCU run cut the lead to nine with 12:50 to play. With the Monarchs scoring just two buckets – both by Hassell – during the next six minutes, the Rams pulled within four on Jamie Skeen's three-point play, then within 53-51 on Bradford Burgess' follow with 5:05 to play.
"There was no giving up, that's for sure," Rams coach Shaka Smart said. "We knew we had to fight."
Skeen, who combined for 45 points in VCU's first two tournament wins, sat most of the first half with two fouls but battled Hassell in the post down the stretch, finishing with 18 points.
"I figured he would start being more aggressive," Hassell said. "He got some and-one's and some putbacks, (but) we came out with the win."
The Monarchs' lead shrank to 55-54 on Burgess' 3-pointer with 4:25 to play, but Hassell answered with a tap-in after Darius James missed a runner and Chris Cooper couldn't convert the follow.
"It's going to be a tough tape to watch, because we're going to see some things we certainly should have done better," Smart said. "We didn't get those crucial stops. We made them miss, but they got the rebound and tipped it in."
VCU couldn't score on consecutive trips, and after an ODU timeout, Bazemore's layup off Ben Finney's inbounds pass gave the Monarchs a 62-56 lead with 1:30 to play. After Joey Rodriguez missed a jumper on the other end, James got the rebound, was fouled and made a free throw for a 63-56 lead with 1:10 to go.
Ed Nixon, who missed a chunk of the game after being hit by an inadvertent Hassell elbow in the first half, made a bucket on the other end, but Trian Iliadis, who had eight first-half points, sank two free throws with 50 seconds left to give ODU some much-needed breathing room.
"We had a little wiggle room with as well as we'd played, and then we had enough talent and enough will to get to the finish line," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said.
The Monarchs led 39-26 at halftime. ODU, which outrebounded VCU 38-23 for the game, allowed the Rams just six first-half rebounds.
"I really thought we had them doing some soul-searching for the first 25 minutes of the game as to whether they were going to be able to play with us," Taylor said.
The Monarchs were 17-of-30 from the free-throw line, while the Rams went 9-of-17, and shot 58.5 percent (24-of-41) for the game while holding VCU to 39.7 percent.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun