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Were Jeff Jones not already sick, the way his team played for most of the first half Friday might’ve been enough to put the Old Dominion coach off his breakfast.
For long stretches, the Monarchs couldn’t shoot, rebound or play defense.
In the second half, they likely did just enough of all three to make Jones feel a little better.
Mekhi Long scored 18 points, including a game-winning layup as time expired, to lead ODU to a dramatic and hard-fought 62-61 triumph over Longwood at Chartway Arena.
The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for the Monarchs (3-4), who had been without Jones for three games as the coach battled pneumonia.
Jones was back on the sideline Friday in a limited capacity, letting assistant coach Bryant Stith handle the heavy lifting, including the postgame media obligations.
“Tonight with Coach Jones there challenging everybody, his presence … served as an inspiration to everybody on that bench,” Stith said. “I think everybody just gave a little bit more.”
The Lancers (4-3), who play in the Big South Conference, demanded it. Longwood, which led by as many as 14 in the first half, took a 61-60 lead on a pair of Justin Hill free throws with nine seconds left.
After an ODU timeout, the Monarchs inbounded the ball under the visitors’ goal. Point guard Jaylin Hunter dribbled across midcourt, paused and turned at the top of the key and spotted Long on the right baseline.
Hunter threw a two-handed, overhead pass to Long, who calmly sank a contested layup as the horn sounded, the backboard border lit red and the post-Thanksgiving crowd of 4,275 erupted.
Long, a 6-foot-7 sophomore guard, said he didn’t know exactly how much time he had when he got the ball.
“I knew it was enough to shoot it, though,” he said. “I definitely did.
“Any game-winning shot, you dream about, especially at this level.”
C.J. Keyser added 12 points for the Monarchs (3-4), who shot 43.4% from the floor but made just 3 of 16 from 3-point range.
Hill scored a team-high 14 points for Longwood, which made 9 of 18 from long range.
With Jones under the weather, the Monarchs went 0-3 at last week’s Myrtle Beach Invitational, losing badly to Indiana State before dropping games to East Carolina and Penn.
“It was huge to get a win,” Stith said. “We were reeling. We didn’t care how this victory came today.”
It nearly didn’t. After a dizzying 17-2 run by the Lancers, ODU fell behind 28-14 with just over four minutes left in the first half.
The Monarchs then closed the period with a 14-1 spurt of their own, including a Hunter 3 from the left wing — his team’s first make from long range in eight tries — to enter halftime trailing 29-28.
The seesaw second half saw five ties and 10 lead changes, including Long’s decisive layup.
Stith, who starred for Jones at the University of Virginia, said Jones surprised the players by showing up at Wednesday’s practice.
He also got them thinking.
“If he’s fighting pneumonia and he’s still out there, we’re 20, 21,” Long said. “We’ve got to keep fighting. So his presence, that’s a big lift. That’s a great lift for us.”
Jones planned to remain seated during the game and let Stith be his conduit to the officials. But the fiery Jones couldn’t help himself at times, leaping to his feet to contest several calls.
“That’s just the competitor in Coach Jones,” Stith said, adding that as a child, he watched Jones play for U.Va.
“There is no quit in that fellow there. Coach Jones is as tough as they get. He’s the same type of coach as he was a player.”
David Hall, email@example.com