Loughton lifts ODU to CAA glory

RICHMOND, Va. -- Standing beneath his own basket, the kid from Australia made eye contact with the kid from Charlotte and mouthed a two-word message halfway across the court.

"It's on," Old Dominion forward Alex Loughton said to lip-reading guard Isaiah Hunter.

A sly smile crept across Hunter's face. Loughton was giving him the signal to go deep on an inbounds play.

Loughton said they'd run the home-run play about 15 times during the season and only misfired once -- but this was still an incredibly bold call, given its context.

The Monarchs were immersed in a cauldron of pressure. The heavy Colonial Athletic Association tournament favorites were up two in overtime on Virginia Commonwealth with less than a minute to play. An NCAA Tournament bid was on the line -- and even with a 27-5 record, Old Dominion was no sure thing to get there if it lost this game.

But Loughton threw caution to the wind and the ball to Hunter, who tore downcourt behind the Rams' defense to reel it in and dunk it home. In a flourish, the tension was released and ODU's RPI and SOS were moot points. Fifty-four seconds and 12 clutch free throws later, the Monarchs had a 73-66 victory, officially leaving bubble-team status behind.

They were going dancing.

"I'd like to think we would've been OK," coach Blaine Taylor said of his team's at-large chances before going on to say that his team should be seeded higher than the midpack teams from the bigger conferences.

But the postgame celebration indicated that absolutely nobody in navy blue wanted to spend the rest of Championship Week on pins and needles.

"We needed to win," said pristine point guard Drew Williamson, who played 91 minutes in this tournament without committing a turnover. "We didn't want to leave it up to anybody."

They left the CAA championship up to Loughton, who showed America that Andrew Bogut is not the only Aussie big man worth watching this March. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound junior tore through VCU for 28 points and 11 rebounds in 42 tenacious minutes, adding the tournament most outstanding player award to his CAA regular-season player of the year trophy.

Loughton teamed with Williamson to save the game late in regulation. Down three with less than a minute left, Loughton set a screen on Williamson's man near the 3-point line and then slipped it and cut to the basket. Williamson fired him the ball for a layup and one, and Loughton made the free throw to force overtime.

Once there, Loughton hit two consecutive jumpers to take a 59-55 lead. A couple minutes later he threw Harris the home-run pass that broke the game open.

They were celebrating in Perth, where Loughton's family and fiancée were watching the game on ESPN on Tuesday morning. Loughton found his way from there to Old Dominion with the help of two old Chicago Bulls.

Loughton played on the Perth team owned by Luc Longley, who called his friend Larry Krystowiak to check on college prospects for Loughton. Krystowiak was an assistant coach at Old Dominion at the time. Next thing you know, Taylor had himself a big man.

Loughton paid immediate dividends, averaging 8.3 points and 5.9 rebounds as a freshman. Last year he blossomed into a star, dropping 45 points on Charlotte and averaging 16.6 points and 8.7 rebounds.

This year, Loughton took a step backward so his team could take two steps forward. He took fewer shots, and his scoring dipped to 13.5 points per game. But Old Dominion's victory total soared from 17 to 28.

"He was willing to be a little bit selfless in order for his team to get better," VCU coach Jeff Capel said. "Most young guys aren't willing to do that."

"He's as unselfish as any player in the league," Taylor said.

Monday night, however, with the season on the line, Old Dominion needed a selfish Loughton. He delivered, taking a season-high 19 shots and taking over during several key stretches.

"Tonight was my night," he said. "I was going to outsmart and out-tough the competition. … I said to myself that it's time to step it up one last notch and do it for the team."

The Monarchs showed their personalities during the net-cutting ceremony.

Senior Kiah Thomas, a hero in the second half after VCU had come back from 11 points down to make a game of it, snipped his piece of championship net with exquisite care. Harris snipped his and then did a shoulder shake. Williamson, the buttoned-down point guard, snipped his with minimum showmanship. Taylor, who took Montana to two NCAA Tournaments in the 1990s, swung the net round and round over his head, as his wife, Annie, and four daughters cried tears of joy in the stands.

And Loughton allowed himself one final indulgence. After climbing the ladder, he sat on the top step, folded his arms across his chest, looked at the throng of adoring fans and nodded, over and over, a huge smile on his face.

"I just enjoyed the view, being up there and looking at what we've built the last couple years," Loughton said. "Just sort of soaking it up. It made me realize anything's possible."

Yes it is. You just need the guts to try -- to throw the home-run pass with everything on the line, to take the big shots, to cut down the nets. Dreaming of grand possibilities is what March is all about.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.