NORFOLK, Va. — During a post-game press conference earlier this season, after his Old Dominion University men's basketball team shot poorly from the foul line, head coach Jeff Jones said "we do shoot free throws in practice."
That was clearly apparent Saturday night, as the Monarchs won a physical, and at times ugly contest against Georgia Southern from the charity stripe.
The Monarchs made 93 percent of their foul shots (26 of 28), including six of six in the final 36 seconds, to claim a 64-58 victory over Georgia Southern.
The game drew a noisy crowd of 7,029, third largest of the season, as the Monarchs (14-10 overall, 6-6 Sun Belt) won for the fourth time in their last six games.
Guard Chaunce Jenkins led ODU with 16 points and made all four of his free throws in the final minute to lead ODU.
But the star of this game was Mekhi Long, the 6-foot-7 junior from Bryans Road, Maryland, had his fourth consecutive double double for the Monarchs with 13 points, 12 rebounds and a stellar defensive performance against Georgia Southern power forward Andrei Savrasov.
"Mekhi is our heart and soul," Jones said. "He's the guy who's out there competing every single possession."
Tyreek Scott-Grayson added 13 points and Faizon Fields had a season-high 12 points, eight rebounds, two steals and a perfect six for six from the foul line.
ODU had made 66 percent of its free throws entering Saturday's game. Why ODU hasn't shot better this season is a mystery, Fields said.
"Coach makes everyone shoot free throws," Fields said. "We shoot a lot.
"We all just have to step up to the line and make the shot."
As was the case in a disappointing loss to James Madison two days earlier, ODU fell behind early, but this time, caught up by halftime.
ODU trailed, 9-2, and the deficit grew to 12 as Carlos Curry made two free throws and then a layup on consecutive possessions to give the Eagles a 29-17 lead with 3:40 left.
At that point, ODU had made just five of 23 shots.
But then the Monarchs got hot, turned up their defensive pressure and outscored the Eagles, 13-1, to tie it up, 30-30 at halftime. Long and Jenkins got the run going with back-to-back three-point shots. Fields tied it up with two foul shots with 20.7 seconds left.
"I'm not sure why, but there was a flip that got switched there in the first half and we looked like a different basketball team," Jones said. "We started flying around and scrambling and went into attack mode rather than playing back on our heels."
Fields said no one said anything to flip a switch, that the players kind of looked at each other and decided to play a little harder.
"We had to step it up because we knew we wanted to win this game," he said. "We knew we needed this game."
ODU led 38-37 when the Monarchs cranked up their fast break and went on an 8-0 run that gave them a nine-point lead, 46-37, nine minutes into the second half.
Scott-Grayson, Long, Imo Essien and Fields all scored on fast-break layups or jump shots.
The Monarchs led the rest of the way, but were unable to put the game way until the final minutes.
ODU led by nine, 50-41, when Savrasov, a senior transfer from Texas Tech, made a three-pointer, followed by another from Derrick Harris Jr. that trimmed the lead to three with eight minutes left.
Kaden Archie made another three-pointer with 6:12 to go that pulled Georgia Southern within two, 56-54.
Then the lid went on top of both baskets, as neither team scored on the next 11 possessions.
Georgia Southern missed its last 10 shots while ODU missed six in a row before Dericko Williams made a layup with 2:43 left that gave the Monarchs a 58-54 lead.
From there, the Monarchs won the game with their tough, man-for-man defense and from the foul line.
The scoring drought, said Jones, "was a matter of good defense on our part and on their part.
"It was a very physical game. You know that's been my experience in the Sun Belt. And I'm fine with it being physical as long as both teams are allowed to be physical.
"You didn't see me out there complaining too much."
ODU faces a difficult final six games to finish the regular season. The Monarchs travel to Georgia State (Feb. 9), Texas State (Feb. 11), James Madison) Feb. 16 and Appalachian State (Feb. 18) before hosting Southern Miss (Feb. 22) and Marshall (Feb. 24).
The Sun Belt Tournament is Feb. 28-March 6 at the Pensacola Bay Center in Pensacola, Florida.
"I'm looking forward to it," Jones said. "I'm looking forward to testing ourselves on the road. This is a hell of an opportunity for our basketball team.
"I said earlier, we have not reached our ceiling. You know, I believe in these guys. I told them after the James Madison game, as long as we stick together and keep working, we're going to keep getting better."