Former Warriors are dancing

Published 6:07 pm Monday, March 15, 2010

As high school teammates, Nick Wright and Andre Jones played postseason basketball all four years they were on Nansemond River’s varsity team.

Even though it’s no longer as teammates, the former Warriors will be playing in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament two seasons into their collegiate careers.

Wright is a redshirt-freshman for Old Dominion. The Monarchs (26-8) won the Colonial Athletic Association regular season and tournament championship. ODU, a No. 11 seed, will face No. 6 Notre Dame in New Orleans Thursday at 12:25 p.m.

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Jones is a sophomore for Winthrop, champions of the Big South Conference Tournament. The Eagles (19-13) are in Tuesday night’s opening round game against Arkansas Pine-Bluff in Dayton. The winner gets No. 1-seed Duke Friday evening in Jacksonville.

Winthrop won at Coastal Carolina in its tourney final Saturday, March 6. ODU beat William and Mary in the CAA final last Monday in Richmond. Since then, the two classmates have been sharing phone calls, e-mails and texts. They’ve also been getting lots of calls and messages from family, friends, past coaches and past teammates.

ODU’s spring break was last week, and ODU head coach Blaine Taylor gave his Monarchs two days off from practice following the three wins in three days in Richmond.

“I was able to go see Coach (Ed) Young and some of my teachers. I got caught up on a lot of things,” Wright said.

“Especially after the Coastal (Carolina) game, I got a lot of text messages. Mostly from people I know, but some were from random people I don’t know,” Jones said.

Winthrop’s team traveled to Dayton Monday morning, had a practice scheduled for the afternoon and media obligations in the evening.

Officially, the Eagles had only since the tournament bracket was announced Sunday evening to get ready for Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the Southwestern Athletic Conference champs. Winthrop head coach Randy Peele had a good hunch Winthrop would be in this game against this opponent though, said Jones.

“We were together as a team to watch the Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Texas Southern game (the SWAC final),” Jones said. “We kind of had an idea we’d be in the play-in game.”

Winthrop was the No. 3 seed going into the Big South Tournament and had to play Coastal Carolina on its home court.

“It was a real emotional game,” Jones said. Winthrop trailed by two at halftime before winning 64-53.

Winthrop had eight conference titles since 1999, but came up short last season. This season started out rocky for the Eagles as well. After a five-game losing streak, including two conference losses, the Eagles were 5-9 in early January.

“For the freshmen and sophomores, this is our first championship here at Winthrop,” Jones said. “It definitely feels good because we had sort of a bad year last year. People were kind of doubting us, but no one’s doubting us now because we got the job done.”

“This season we’ve become much closer as a team. Even during the conference tournament, staying in a hotel for a few days, it’s helped us,” Jones said.

Early in the season, Jones was a regular starter. For the last couple months though, he’s been a reserve guard. Jones is still seeing plenty of critical playing time though. In the conference final, Jones had nine points and three assists in 21 minutes. Jones tallied 23 points in Winthrop’s three tournament wins.

Old Dominion’s season hasn’t included the same ups and downs. The Monarchs held first place in the CAA after winning eight straight conference games starting in early January. ODU might have been in the NCAA Tournament even without winning the CAA Tournament.

The Monarchs didn’t take any chances, beating No. 8 Towson, No. 5 Virginia Commonwealth and No. 3 William and Mary.

The semifinal against VCU was ODU’s biggest challenge. The Monarchs rallied from 12 points down with just under 11:00 remaining to win 73-69 in overtime.

“Any two schools you can think of who have a big rivalry, that’s what (ODU vs. VCU) is like. It’s everything you’d want it to be,” Wright said.

“It’s always a sellout. It’s always two good teams. You’ve got to go out and play your heart out,” Wright said.

In Richmond, while at the Richmond Coliseum and not VCU’s Siegel Center, “it’s five minutes from VCU. It felt like we were the underdog even though we were the No. 1 seed,” Wright said. It was another sellout, just over 11,200 fans, to see the Monarchs vs. Rams.

“Actually, right after Andre won his final, on Saturday, while we were in Richmond, I talked with him and I told him ‘I’m coming right behind you,’” Wright said.

Now ODU’s focusing on Notre Dame. The Monarchs already beat one major Big East team this season, 61-57 at Georgetown, in December.

“We really didn’t think of it as being a team from the Big East,” Wright said about their reaction to the bracket coming out Sunday night.

Should ODU advance past Notre Dame, the Monarchs would get the winner of No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 14 Sam Houston St. on Saturday.

Early this week, at home in Norfolk, the Monarch players had important business to take care of before dancing.

“First and foremost, we’re making sure our school work is on track. We plan on playing in the tournament for a long time,” Wright said.

“We feel we have all the pieces to the puzzle and we match up really well versus anyone,” Wright said.