Antetokounmpo played 19 minutes — more than any of the past seven games and more than in all but five this season — and turned in one of the best performances of his young college career.
He tied his career high of 12 points and added four rebounds, three blocked shots and some intimidating defense inside to lead the Flyers to a 53-50 victory at UD Arena.
When the game ended the UD players and coach Anthony Grant went over to the Red Scare section in the Arena and thanked the students for their vocal support all season.
As he left the court, Trey Landers — who had a team-high 13 points and eight rebounds along with two steals and four assists — walked over to two adoring young fans, took off his bright blue sneakers and handed each kid one.
They were overjoyed, but the biggest gifts of the night came from Antetokounmpo, who lifted his team when it desperately needed one and, in the process, gave the muted home crowd something to finally cheer.
“It was great to see Kostas come out and impact the game like he did,” Grant said.
Entering at the 12:09 mark of the first half, Antetokounmpo hit a short jumper 14 seconds later to give UD to a 12-11 lead. Before the half was over he’d scored again and swatted two Saint Louis shots.
After UD trailed by 13 early in the second half, it caught the Billikens with a 13-2 run.
When Saint Louis regrouped, Antetokounmpo then had a highlight reel 2 ½-minute span where he scored six straight points on a variety of shots and played some smothering defense.
The spurt began when he blocked Jalen Johnson’s 3-point attempt, then rushed down the court where his fast break scoring attempt was thwarted by the frustrated Johnson who mugged him. Kostas made both free throws.
“Oh man, that (block) was a relief!” he said. “I was yelling ‘Switch!…Switch!…Switch!’ but Jalen (Crutcher) didn’t hear it, so I was like ‘Oh, I got to run back now’ and I blocked it.”
The next time down the floor he scored again using a drop step on the baseline, then reaching around the backboard to flip up a layup.
The third basket came on an alley-oop lob from Landers that he slammed.
Just as impressive was the defense he played on muscular 6-foot-7, 235-pound Hasahn French, who hurt the Flyers early with his inside dominance.
Dayton’s Kostas Antetokounmpo dunks against Saint Louis on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff
Twice, though, down the stretch French was thwarted by Antetokounmpo, who forced him to alter his shots and misfire.
“I knew he was stronger than me and more physical,” he said. “My plan was to use my length and try to avoid as much contact as I can.”
When Grant pulled him after a foul with 37 seconds left — Landers used a bear hug to walk him away from the ref as he protested the call — the UD crowd gave him a standing ovation.
After the game, Saint Louis coach Travis Ford stopped him in the handshake line, commended him on his game and then reached up and patted the back on his head in admiration.
Antetokounmpo came to UD with a lot of fanfare and the heavy expectations that come with it.
His older brother Giannis — the Milwaukee Bucks’ 6-foot-11 forward who is one of the most celebrated players in the NBA — is called the Greek Freak because of his huge hands, extra-long strides and those high-flying monster dunks.
He signed a four-year, $100 million contract before the season.
Another brother, Thanasis, was drafted by the New York Knicks and now plays professionally in Greece, and younger brother Alex is a prep sensation in suburban Milwaukee.
Since he came to UD last year — his raw skills earning him the label Greek Freak 2.0 — Antetokounmpo has had several challenges.
The NCAA Clearinghouse didn’t accept all of his credits from Greece and he was forced to sit out last season as an academic redshirt.
Over the summer he injured his knee playing for the U-20 Greek National Team and then in late September his 54-year-old father died of a heart attack.
Once this season began, its been a roller coaster.
For every shining moment — and he had some notable games early against Hofstra, Akron and Tennessee Tech — there have been struggles on many fronts.
He has often found himself in foul trouble. In nine games he’s had as many or more fouls than points.
Once he fouled out in 16 minutes. Twice he had four fouls in 11 minutes. Once, thee in the first 8 ½ minutes.
In six of the past nine games he played nine or fewer minutes and had a total of eight points. One game Grant didn’t call on him at all.
“One of the things I leaned being here is that you can’t control what’s not in your hand,” he said. “I try to not get down and I just move on to the next game. I go to the next practice and play as hard as I can.”
Grant admitted that can be difficult for players: “For a young guy, sometimes that’s tough to figure out. We’ve all been there.”
He said he and especially his assistant coaches try to talk to players in situations like that:
“Our staff does a great job of either bringing them into the office, meeting them for lunch or before practice or after. We try to communicate and Kostas has been a great teammate and wants to do what he can to help.
Grant said his effort Tuesday night “was great to see.
“Hopefully this is a stepping stone for him to realize when he brings that type of competitiveness and energy, he’s capable of making a huge difference.”
Dayton’s Kostas Antetokounmpo shoots against Saint Louis on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff
As he does most days, Kostas said he spoke to Giannis on Tuesday before the game:
“He told me to play as hard as I can.”
Kostas wears a pair of rubber bracelets his brother gave him that say “Stay Strong.”
They are meant to buoy him during tough times off the court and on.
And speaking of strength, Antetokounmpo hopes to gain some before next season. Part of it has to do with beefing up from his current 197 pounds.
He said he would like to add 20 to 25 pounds.
“Do you eat?” he was asked.
“I eat a lot actually,” he grinned. “It’s my metabolism, I guess. My brother just got big two years ago.”
Asked about his thin big man, Grant shrugged and laughed: “Our strength coach and food services are available and ready.”
Jokes aside, Antetokounmpo admitted one thing:
“I feel like I’m getting better every day. Even just by watching I get better. Hopefully, this is just the tip of the iceberg and not the peak.”
And that is something to dance about.