RICHMOND, Va. -- Monday's Colonial Athletic Association championship between Old Dominion and William & Mary, judging by the newspapers, was about the potential end of an epic drought -- the 71 years the Tribe had gone without ever earning a trip to the NCAA tournament. But if you sized up the game solely by the signs in the student sections at either end of the Richmond Coliseum court, it was about mustaches.
William & Mary students are so fond of coach Tony Shaver's facial hair that they depicted it on poster boards and wore their own (fake) versions of it. Old Dominion students treated coach Blaine Taylor as a mustachioed icon, holding up giant photo cutouts of his mug, as well as one sign that was simply a nose and 'stache atop a pair of hinged (and therefore dance-friendly) legs. That sign's creator believed that the Monarchs held a mustache advantage, because, he said, "Shaver shaves. But Taylor? When's the last time he cut that thing?"
That's somewhat of a mischaracterization: Taylor isn't unkempt, but he does have the more substantial facial hair, almost like an animal pelt pinned above his upper lip. The students can debate whether that advantage aided the Monarchs' 60-53, dance-card-punching victory on Monday, but in this space it's worth noting that ODU was the more substantial team in quite a few other ways.
It dwarfed the Tribe by having high-major size on a mid-major roster, with 6-foot-10 senior forward Gerald Lee in the paint and 6-5 sophomore guard Kent Bazemore at the point. Its overall length helped hold one of the nation's most three-point-reliant teams to just 29.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The Monarchs, who rank 18th nationally in defensive efficiency and were by far the best defensive team in the CAA this season, won the turnover battle 12-to-7, and were also more tenacious on the offensive glass, winning that battle 12-to-8. They played so physically that Shaver suggested they might have been worthy, this season, of competing in the ACC rather than the CAA. They entered the CAA's tournament as the No. 1 seed, having beaten William & Mary twice during the regular season, and left by ruining the Tribe's fairy-tale ending, sealing up the league's automatic bid and doing a favor to bubble teams across the nation.
Whether or not ODU makes noise in the NCAA tournament will depend greatly on Lee, a finesse post presence who had nine points and four rebounds against a collapsing D in the title game, but was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player for dominating the earlier rounds. He was somehow hoisted on fans' shoulders in the aftermath (he said a couple of guys who "looked like football players" had been willing to carry his 250-pound frame) and also paraded around wearing a Finnish flag as a cape. Taylor found a gem in 2006 when he recruited Lee (14.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg) out of Uusikaupunki, Finland, where he was born to a Finnish mother and an American father who's the all-time leading scorer in Finnish pro history. The ODU coach has since surrounded Lee with a diverse crew of role players, such as his more physical post partner, Frank Hassell (9.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg), and in the backcourt, the defensive-minded Bazemore (8.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg), and more traditional scoring guards Darius James and Marsharee Neely. "We're not a cookie-cutter bunch," said Taylor. "We try not to duplicate the same guy, so we have different skill sets."
They know to go to Lee in the clutch, though: When William & Mary cut the Monarchs' lead to five at the 5:12 mark of the second half, their ensuing offensive possession consisted of an in-and-out game between Lee and James. With eight seconds left on the shot clock, Lee took James' third consecutive post feed on the right block, and pivoted baseline to hit a baby hook that killed the momentum of the Tribe's comeback attempt.
When the game was safely locked up in the final minute, veteran referee Bryan Kersey turned to Taylor and said, "I don't think you guys are done dancing." Taylor, who has yet to win an NCAA tournament game in two attempts at Montana and two at ODU, responded with an energetic thumbs-up. His last trip to the dance was in 2007, when no one was making a big deal about the 'stache, and Lee was just a freshman. Neither of their powers had yet to be fully harnessed.