"We'll be back."
Given Old Dominion's valiant exit from the NCAA basketball tournament Saturday, can you doubt the Monarchs' sixth man? Can you doubt that a program with just one senior starter is capable of returning to, and advancing in, the postseason?
ODU lost to Baylor 76-68 in a second-round collision that matched teams of different pedigree but similar resolve. The Monarchs erased a 10-point halftime deficit and led by two with six minutes and change to play.
That's when Ron Bertovich, the Colonial Athletic Association's deputy commissioner, felt his phone vibrate at courtside. It was a text from Kevin McNamee, a George Mason administrator.
"Cue up 'Livin' on a Prayer.'"
That Bon Jovi song became the theme of Mason's 2006 Final Four run, and if the Patriots could do it, why not their CAA comrades four years later?
ODU had dismissed Notre Dame in the first round and was leading Baylor. High seeds such as Georgetown, Villanova and Vanderbilt already were history, and Northern Iowa was in the process of slaying top-ranked Kansas.
Like the Monarchs, Northern Iowa hails from an underrated conference, the Missouri Valley. So does Saint Mary's, the West Coast Conference's conqueror of Villanova.
Not surprisingly, the commissioners of those leagues are friends, and Saturday they were in constant contact as their respective teams competed. Tom Yeager of the CAA, Doug Elgin of the Missouri Valley and Jamie Zaninovich of the West Coast.
In fact, Zaninovich was a Stanford administrator when ODU head coach Blaine Taylor was a Cardinal assistant. So he was especially invested in the Monarchs, even though the Baylor-ODU winner was bracketed to face Saint Mary's next.
"We're all cheerleaders for each other," Yeager said.
Yeager thought ODU (27-9) in prime position to reach its first Sweet 16 and place the CAA on that stage for the fourth time in its 25-year history. But then Baylor's superior size and athleticism finally prevailed.
Seven-footer Josh Lomers scored seven of his 14 points in less than two minutes to give the Bears, co-runners-up to Kansas in the Big 12 regular season, a 64-61 lead with 4:12 left. When guard LaceDarius Dunn hit the last of his four 3-pointers, with the shot clock at :02 no less, to double the margin to 68-62, the Monarchs sagged.
"We just couldn't suppress their offense for long enough stretches," said Carter, a junior forward.
Indeed, Baylor (27-7) shot 51.9 percent, third-best against the Monarchs this season. Dunn scored 26 points, while point guards Tweety Carter and A.J. Walton combined for 11 assists and no turnovers.
The Bears made eight 3-pointers and dunked six times, most on high-flying lob passes from afar.
Still, ODU was right there. Gerald Lee and Frank Hassell (15 points each) exposed the soft spots inside Baylor's 2-3 zone defense, and Ben Finney made three 3-pointers, matching his season-best.
"I thought we were good enough," said Taylor, his eyes red from an emotional postgame locker room. "I believed we were good enough. ... I really felt this team could have won this game and moved on and still been a threat."
No question. Saint Mary's in the South Regional semis in Houston? Sure, the Gaels are good. Ask Villanova. But so are the Monarchs.
Cue up "Livin' on a Prayer," toss the ball and see what happens.
Why, to be on the safe side, why not book a table at St. Elmo in Indianapolis during Final Four week? You can always cancel.
It could have happened. But Dunn's steal of a Kent Bazemore lob pass, and Lee's fumbling of a Bazemore bounce pass, were critical in the waning minutes.
"You just have to fight," Bazemore said. "You don't want to lie down. You want to go down swinging, and that's what we did."
Bazemore is among four starters the Monarchs expect to return. All-CAA forward Lee and reserve Marsharee Neely are the only seniors.
"We'll be back," Carter said. "We'll be back. We'll be back, definitely. We'll be back, no doubt in my mind."
He was rather convincing.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.