Gerald Lee and 11th-seeded Old Dominion pulled off the first upset of the '09 NCAA tournament. (Luke Winn/SI)
NEW ORLEANS -- The whiteboard in Old Dominion's locker room, after its 51-50 upset of Notre Dame, still displayed the points of emphasis from coach Blaine Taylor's pregame speech. One was, "Be Us -- Hoops!" meaning play your game. Another was "FIMO," an acronym for either "Forget It, Move On," or "F--- It, Move On," depending on which player you asked. The best one, though, was, "If the Shoe Fits, WEAR IT!"
"Coach said that people were calling us a Cinderella," senior guard Darius James explained. "And even though we don't think we're an underdog, he said that Cinderella was the prettiest girl at the ball -- so if the shoe fits, we've gotta wear it."
The 11th-seeded Monarchs were only a three-point underdog against the sixth-seeded Irish. Both teams beat Georgetown on the road this season. Efficiency numbers indicated that ODU was actually the better team. But the seeds were still five rungs apart and the leagues were the Colonial Athletic Association and the Big East, so there was the perception of a Cinderella situation.
James was fine with playing along for the fairy tale. During a timeout with 3:03 left in the game and the score tied at 43-43, Taylor said he had a feeling that James was about to knock down a big shot. Never mind that James was 1-of-7 from the field and 0-of-4 from long-range at that point. Taylor winked at him and called a counter play -- "He knows I love that play," James said -- on a screening action he'd been running all game with senior center Gerald Lee. The fake got him an open look at a trey, which he buried with 2:14 left to give the Monarchs their first lead in nearly 11 minutes.
From the vantage point of Franklin Hassell, Sr., the father of junior forward Frank Hassell, the game was a fairy tale. As his son walked off the court at New Orleans Arena, having keyed the upset with 15 points and nine rebounds -- 6.1 points and 2.4 boards above his average -- Franklin stood in second row, shouting into his cell phone: "He's a beast! A beast, baby!"
Franklin said he'd texted "a simple colloquial phrase" to his son that morning: "Do what you make it do." All it meant was to play hard and leave everything on the floor. His son had done that: He was the best big man on the floor in a game that featured former Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody. "I don't think Notre Dame knew who Old Dominion was," Franklin said. "But they couldn't stop [Frank] anyway, so that didn't make a difference."
As for Harangody, he had a dreadful end to his college career, playing 23 minutes and scoring just four points -- one field goal with 12.6 seconds left to bring the Irish within one, at 49-48, and then a garbage put-back at the buzzer when they were down three. (In between those two buckets, ODU's Keyon Carter hit two free throws to seal the win.)
For someone who had seen a lot of The Gody at his best -- I tracked him during his dominant sophomore season for a magazine story -- it was painful to see him bow out with a 2-of-9 shooting performance. Even for Hassell, I think. He said that he was "a fan of Luke's work," but added, "I'm a physical player myself. I like throwing my body around, and that's what I did."
Hassell's teammates watched his postgame press conference on the locker room's closed circuit feed, and shouted when he first appeared on the screen. They seemed genuinely impressed over the fact that a Monarch was on TV. But the game had failed to make him a celebrity. When he returned to the locker room to do further interviews, a local TV reporter asked Hassell a few bland questions and then inquired, "What's your name?"
He had changed out of his jersey by then, and into a white t-shirt with a giant padlock graphic on the front. He said it had no symbolic purpose, and that he liked it because it only cost $5, but Old Dominion truly had locked down their opponent. The Irish made just 23.1 percent of their threes against a long, 3-2 zone that forced them to shoot contested jumper after contested jumper.
The Monarchs, who had used that zone to pull off a comeback in the CAA semifinals against Virginia Commonwealth, started out defending Notre Dame man-to-man. But Taylor switched to almost exclusively zone in the second half, and his team held the Irish to just 22 points in the final 20 minutes. "Coach likes to save that zone for later," said sophomore guard Kent Bazemore, who at 6-5 is a menace on the zone's top line. "Because then, teams just can't find a way to adjust to it." Bazemore doesn't mind if the nation doesn't adjust its view of Old Dominion as an underdog, even though it's 2-0 this season against the Big East. A Big 12 team, Baylor, awaits in the second round. "We'll be Cinderella," Bazemore said. "We'll just keep upsetting people."