Drexel takes away Old Dominion's CAA crown, ends 17-year reign

HARRISONBURG, Va. -- Old Dominion coach Wendy Larry high-fived her players as they came to the bench after warm-ups, and shook hands with Drexel coach Denise Dillon when the final gun sounded Saturday.

In between, Larry saw something she had hoped to never see.

With her team disintegrating in a me-first mentality as the stress of their Colonial Athletic Association semifinal game against Drexel wore on, the Lady Monarchs really had no chance, and they saw their NCAA-record string of 17 consecutive tournament titles end.

The top-seeded Dragons got 20 points from CAA player of the year Gabriela Marginean and pulled away to beat Old Dominion 62-41 in the semifinals of the league tournament. It is the first loss for Larry's team in 52 CAA tournament games since it joined the league in 1991-92.

"You hope that you fight to defend your crown every day," a sullen Larry said, noting that some of her players likely weren't born the last time Old Dominion failed to win its conference tournament. "I wish that we had fought a little bit harder today, that we had worked a little bit better together today to make that happen, but it is what it is."

And what it was was a resounding changing of the guard in the CAA, one hinted at all season as the Lady Monarchs struggled to dominate, eventually gaining just the fourth seed.

Old Dominion had never lost more than five games in league play before going 11-7 this year, and its defeats included only its third at home in 165 CAA games -- a 72-67 setback to James Madison on Jan. 25 -- and its first in 44 meetings with George Mason, 63-57 on Feb. 22.

The latter was the Lady Monarchs' third in a row, just the third such streak they've had, but the tournament at James Madison was their chance to make it right, and to wear the crown again.

"It's disappointing because we let each other down," said guard Jen Nuzzo, one of three seniors on the team. Nuzzo was 0-for-8 but had plenty of company -- ODU shot 26 percent as a team.

"They gave us a few punches and we just didn't have it in us to punch back," said fellow senior Jazzmin Walters, was scored just six points and had 10 of Old Dominion's 21 turnovers.

The Dragons (23-8) went ahead to stay when two free throws by Marginean gave them a 14-13 lead with 6:48 left in the first half. They gradually, but steadily, pulled away to keep alive their chance to become the first team in the CAA other than Richmond or Old Dominion to win the tournament and its NCAA bid since 1990-91.

"We gave them their loss and it means a lot to us just as a program," Drexel guard Andrea Peterson said. "Being seniors, we have accomplished so much, and we made history right here."

It was a history some reluctantly admitted to thinking about beforehand.

"I was up for about four hours after curfew last night thinking about it," Dragons senior forward Nicole Hester said after initially downplaying the importance of the victory.

"I've been in this position before, my freshman year, and we lost to them by one. That was my break-in, so I think I've dreamed about it ever since then," Hester said.

Using a deliberate offensive style and a defense that closed off the inside, the Dragons rode the inside scoring of Marginean to a 26-22 halftime lead. Drexel opened the second half with a 10-2 run to stretch its lead to 36-24 and the Lady Monarchs got no closer than seven.

They were outrebounded 38-30, and their 21 turnovers led to 18 Drexel points.

Jasmina Rosseel added 12 points and Hester had 10 for Drexel, which will play third-seeded James Madison for the title on Sunday. The Dukes beat Virginia Commonwealth 65-57.

The Lady Monarchs were led by Jasmine Parker with 14 points and Jessica Canady with 11.

Before her team boarded the bus for the ride back to Norfolk, and possibly an opportunity to play in the Women's NIT, Larry was already thinking about how to get back on top.

"You have to find people that have the heart and the fight again, that believe that this is something that we can start again," Larry said. "There's nothing that keeps you from starting a new run. That's our job, to go out and find those type of players that believe.

"I think we have some, to be quite honest. We've got to bring it out of them."

And then, for the first time, she left the CAA tournament early, without the trophy.