College Basketball

Charlotte 49ers fall 61-54 to ODU in Conference USA opener

A troubling trend bit the 49ers once more Sunday in their Conference USA men’s basketball opener against Old Dominion at Halton Arena.

The 49ers, failing again to match their opposition’s effort and intensity at the outset, fell behind by as many as 17 points and went on to a 61-54 defeat against the Monarchs.

Charlotte’s slow starts have become habit: The 49ers have trailed by double digits in 11 consecutive games and haven’t led at halftime since the second game of the season against Penn State.

“We didn’t put two halves together like we’d want to,” 49ers coach Alan Major said of Sunday’s game. “We spotted them too big a lead there. I’m not real sure what the problem is; we’re not getting into a great rhythm offensively. But you have to give (ODU) some credit, too.”

All the more exasperating for the 49ers (6-7, 0-1) is they also again turned what might have been a blowout into a close game. As they did recently against Georgetown (rallying from 16 down before losing 81-78) and Georgia Tech (down by 12, losing 67-66), the 49ers trimmed ODU’s lead to four points (53-49) on a jumper by point guard Pierria Henry with 4 minutes, 38 seconds left.

That was as close as Charlotte would get. The 49ers frustrations were embodied on ODU’s next possession, when, after Monarchs guard Trey Freeman missed two free throws, two Charlotte players fumbled the rebound out of bounds without an ODU player nearby. The Monarchs took full advantage of the gift when Ambrose Mosley hit a 3-pointer, pushing the advantage back to seven points.

The Monarchs, one of the country’s early surprises with their one-loss run through the nonconference schedule, entered the game as C-USA’s top defensive team, allowing 55.2 points per game. They did better than that against the 49ers, who had been averaging scoring 75.6 points.

The 49ers fell behind quickly early when ODU (12-1, 1-0) hit its first four shots and the 49ers missed eight of their first 12.

“It was nice to come out and play as hard we did,” Monarchs coach Jeff Jones said. “Right from the beginning, we were ready to play.”

The 49ers got back into it by going to a small lineup, with power forward Willie Clayton (12 points) usually playing with four guards – Henry, Torin Dorn (13 points), Keyshawn Woods and Braxton Ogbueze. That lineup was also determined by foul problems for center Mike Thorne, who struggled offensively again (zero points, two rebounds) in 14 minutes.

So, while the 49ers were able to quicken the pace and climb back into the game, the bigger Monarchs were also able to dominate the boards 37-24. ODU scored 10 points off 14 offensive rebounds.

The 49ers’ consistently slow starts have come with the same starting lineup – Thorne, Clayton, Terrence Williams, Ogbueze and Henry – in all 13 games. The play off the bench of freshmen Dorn and Woods has been a constant in Charlotte’s rallies.

Major said he was open to anything that might change his team’s early game doldrums, but he stopped short of saying he would change the starting lineup.

“I don’t know, I’m going to look at myself first in terms of how we can get playing better,” Major said. “Obviously, we’ll discuss everything as a (coaching) staff. I try not to throw any (player) under the bus, if he’s doing too much or whether it’s his fault of not. But if this warrants change, we’ll do it.”

The 49ers hit the road for their next two league games, against Western Kentucky on Thursday and Marshall on Saturday.

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