Archdeacon: A storybook debut for newest Flyer

Freshman Mustapha Amzil scores team-high 22 points in first college game

On a night that seemed all about losing, the Dayton Flyers did gain something.

Mustapha Amzil – a 6-foot-10 Finnish-Moroccan 19-year-old who had a storybook debut – was the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud of a game against La Salle at UD Arena on Wednesday night.

In losing 67-65, the Flyers fell to a team that came to town with a 3-5 record; a team they’d beaten by 26 last season in Philadelphia; a team that hadn’t won at UD Arena in 21 years.

The loss snapped Dayton’s 20-game winning streak in regular season Atlantic 10 conference games. Wednesday’s performance was the total opposite of the steely, cohesive effort the Flyers had shown in their last game, a three-point victory over previously unbeaten Ole Miss at the Arena on Dec. 19.

But the saddest loss Wednesday was what appears to be the final departure of Chase Johnson from the program.

The 6-foot-9 redshirt junior – a kid you really want to pull for – left the team for the second time in two years to deal with mental health issues. And this time, his social media remarks and those made by head coach Anthony Grant seem to indicate the union is over.

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Last season Johnson took a medical leave from the team in December after playing eight games. He said he was diagnosed with post concussive stress disorder and returned home to West Virginia to get himself healthy.

Before coming to UD, he had two abbreviated seasons at Florida, playing four games as a freshman and two as a sophomore before injuries and at least three diagnosed concussions sidelined him.

He announced his return to UD this summer, started the Flyers first five games this season and was averaging 12.2 points (third best on team) and 6 rebounds (second best.)

Late Wednesday afternoon he announced on his Instagram account that, after consulting with his family and his doctor, he was leaving the program to focus on his health and school.

In a statement, Grant wished him well and after Wednesday’s game the coach said no more about the split accept that “it had been in the works probably since we returned from the break (Dec. 27.”

Senior guard Jalen Crutcher talked about Johnson after the game: “Obviously everyone is upset, but you got to do what’s right for him and his mental health. Whenever somebody’s having those problems, you can’t really do anything like playing basketball. When you have mental health issues, you’re not going to be as good as you want to be.”

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Johnson’s loss, coupled with the absence of freshman R.J. Blakney and transfer Elijah Weaver – both said to have sustained undisclosed injuries in practice – left the Flyers short-handed against La Salle.

And that set the stage for the improbable introduction of Amzil.

He just came to the United States from Finland in October and enrolled at First Love Academy, a prep school in Washington, Pa., that has just 45 total students and a United Nations basketball roster.

Amzil came in a bit under the radar – he was initially listed as a 6-foot-8, three-star recruit – and never played for First Love.

But his size and potential were greater than listed on paper and as top college programs began to realize that, UD was in the forefront of his recruitment. He said he felt a real “connection” to the Flyers coaches and signed a letter of intent with UD on Nov. 16.

He joined the team Dec. 19.

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Before Wednesday’s game, he had practiced just three times with the team. He said he’s walked around the campus a couple of times, but with UD on holiday break, he’s yet to take a class at the school.

It’s doubtful he even knows the names of all of his teammates, but one thing he does know is how to play basketball.

Starting in place of Johnson, he showed a soft touch shot, an ability to rebound and a willingness to step up to the moment at hand.

He scored a game-high 22 points, co-led the Flyers with seven rebounds and played a whopping 36 minutes and 11 seconds in his first game in over 300 days. That goes back to March when his unbeaten Helsinki Basketball Academy (HBA) team – winners of 21 straight – had its year cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sound familiar?

At one point, Amzil scored 17 points in a row for the Flyers. From the 5:28 mark of the first half until 14:51 were left in the second half – over 10 ½ minutes – he was the only Flyer to score. Making jump shots in the lane, a three-pointer and free throws, he was a one-man show when some of the team’s older stars were faltering.

His 22 points are the second most ever by a Flyers’ freshman in his debut.

In his first UD game – Nov. 11, 2006 -- Marcus Johnson scored 23 in a season-opening victory over Austin Peay at UD Arena.

His coming out party mirrors Amzil’s. Johnson was inserted into the lineup when UD lost starting point guard Andres Sandoval with a broken bone in his left foot. That forced junior Brian Roberts to move to the point and Johnson took over his spot and went on to play 135 games and score 1,286 points for the Flyers.

Amzil – who would get scholarship offers in mid-November from name programs like Indiana, Pitt, Illinois, Maryland, NC State, Georgia Tech, DePaul, Marquette, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Boston College St. John’s and SMU – said he chose UD because he wanted a program where he had “a chance to make an impact.”

Dayton ‘just felt right’

Amzil’s mother is Finnish and his dad is Moroccan

He said his parents “always wanted their kids to play some kind of sports” and his older sister, Latifa, is on the roster of Cisco Community College in Texas. His two younger siblings are at home.

After plying high school ball at Makelanrinteen lukio, he played last season with the HBA and averaged 10.6 points and 8.1 rebounds.

His real experience has come from 86 games with the Finish junior national teams.

In 2017 he was the MVP of the U-16 Finnish national league and played for Team Europe in all-star games. By 2019 he was he captain of the U-18 national team. He averaged 12.4 points and 7.3 rebounds in the European Championships in Latvia and 16.2 p.p.g. when the team won the All Nordic Championship.

He had an offer to turn pro, but opted for college and said Dayton “just felt right.”

‘He did a good job for us’

Wednesday night the Flyers started out strong and led by 14 midway through the first half. Then came the lull where they lost intensity and toughness and maybe some interest.

“Their effort was better than ours,” Grant said of La Salle. “Their resolve, their grit was better. They beat us to all the 50-50 balls. Give them credit, they understood the effort and focus they needed to have in the league.”

He said the way his team handles this loss will tell a lot about them: “It’s been a while since they’ve experienced adversity like this. How they respond – whether we point fingers or allow ourselves to be held accountable and make a commitment to each other – will tell…”if the lesson will be repeated over and over again.”

Crutcher – who with 19 points was the only other Flyer is double figures – praised Amzil after the game.

So did Grant: “I think he did a good job for us.”

He said the freshman – with only three practices – has a lot to learn, but “he’s got a very, very high basketball IQ. He was able to pick up quite a bit in a short period of time.

“He’s got a toughness about him…He’s a worker. And he loves the game.

“Obviously, we didn’t want to be in that situation where he had to play those type of minutes tonight, but it was what it was.”

It was a dark cloud of a game with a silver lining named Mustapha.

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