Archdeacon: Cunningham shines brightest on a dim day for Flyers

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Highlights: Dayton's Josh Cunningham scores 32 vs. Rhode Island

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Dayton forward scores career-high 32 points in loss to Rhode Island

As long as he doesn’t let his mom turn into some modern-day Delilah, the Dayton Flyers will have some hope in this season of struggle.

At least that’s the way an old biblical tale could apply to UD’s current basketball trials.

Josh Cunningham is as close to Sampson as any Flyer gets.

If you don’t remember, Sampson was a Nazarite with the flowing locks who had such great strength he slayed a lion with his bare hands and wiped out an entire army of Philistines using nothing but the jawbone of an ass.

» DAYTON NOTES: Foul trouble limits Landers

The secret to his strength was said to be that long hair.

But then Delilah batted her eyes at him, he let down his guard and when he was asleep she had a servant cut his hair. He lost his power, was turned over to the Philistines, blinded and eventually killed.

Cunningham — as is his practice every basketball season since he was a junior in high school — has vowed not to cut his hair until after the final game.

A little over two months into this 9-10 season and he’s looking a little fuzzy, but he’s playing with some real power inside.

Saturday afternoon he was about all the Flyers could count on in what ended up an 88-74 loss to Rhode Island at UD Arena.

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Watch: Turnovers doom Dayton Flyers in loss to Rhode Island

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The 6-foot-7 redshirt junior scored a career-high 32 points, had a game-high 12 rebounds and added two blocked shots and two assists in 37 minutes.

“He’s as good of a forward as there is in the league,” Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley said as he stood outside his team’s dressing room after the game.

“He’s reminiscent of the type of guys they had here — in terms of physicality, skill, game and maturity — when Dayton was playing at the top of the league and winning the regular season with Archie (Miller). They had four or five guys like that.”

Even so, Hurley admitted the Rams were more worried about Dayton’s outside shooting than the game-long damage Cunningham could inflict inside.

The Flyers had upset VCU here a week earlier on the strength of a school-record 17 three-point shots and Hurley worried about that scenario playing out again:

“We were willing to let Cunningham two us to death. We felt the only way we could lose here is if we gave up a lot of threes and if we let Darrell Davis get going and Jordan Davis get going from there and (Jalen) Crutcher (too).

“We didn’t think they could beat us with just post twos.”

Then again, Rhode Island — now 15-3 overall, 7-0 in the Atlantic 10 and on the cusp of a top-25 ranking — is not VCU.

The Rams are everything UD is not.

They’re a veteran team, one of the oldest in Division I basketball with four senior starters, two of whom are fifth-year players. Guard E.C. Matthews has scored over 1,700 points in his career and Jared Terrell has over 1,500. Saturday they combined for 41.

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Postgame press conference: Dayton's Anthony Grant after losing to Rhode Island

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Along with talent, the team has a toughness and a swagger that showed it from the opening tip.

UD is one of the youngest teams in Division I basketball. It lacks experience, consistent veteran talent and too often plays soft.

Hurley called the Flyers a team “in transition,” said they have some “great” young talent and thinks they will be “dangerous” this season.

His team already is.

“We have an embarrassment of riches,” Hurley said, then smiled. “I’d have to be a real dope to screw this up…but there’s still time left for it.

“The thing is we can have two or three guards not play well and still win by double figures.”

UD has no such cushion. It must play almost perfectly to go toe-to-toe with a team like the Rams. And Saturday it did not.

The Flyers had 21 turnovers and gave up 12 offensive rebounds.

They got very little out of several players.

Freshman guard Jordan Davis started, played 22 minutes and did not score. Junior guard John Crosby played 24 minutes and got one point. Fellow junior Xeyrius Williams managed two points.

Senior guard Darrell Davis had eight turnovers. Trey Landers — who showed moxie early on and was 5-for-5 from the floor — was in game-long foul trouble and finally fouled out. Kostas Antetokounmpo played 24 minutes and took one shot.

Cunningham was the one bright spot.

Yet when someone mentioned his career-high 32 points, he brushed that thought aside:

“It doesn’t mean anything because we didn’t win.”

The Flyers have won several of their games thanks in a big way to Cunningham, who is playing his first full season at UD after missing all or most of the last two.

He sat out two seasons ago to meet NCAA requirements after transferring from Bradley. Last year he suffered a serious leg injury in the second game and would be sidelined for 21 games before returning at partial strength for the tail end of the season.

He’s the team captain this season and a guy, coach Anthony Grant said Saturday, who has earned the respect and trust of his teammates for “the way he is as a person, the way he approaches what he does and the way he competes.”

He ranks 13th in the nation in field-goal percentage, shooting 67.2 percent. Saturday he was better than that. Making 13 of 18 shots translates to 72.2 percent.

“It’s just because I’m so close in there when I get the ball, I feel I can jump over everybody and just drop the ball in,” he said with a shrug.

That sounds a little Sampson-like and it’s why he can’t listen to his mom, LaTanya, who drives down from Chicago for every game.

He said she’s the only one who has mentioned the word barber with his basketball.

“She always tells me I ought to cut my hair down a little bit,” he smiled. “But I think she understands now.”

For that, the Dayton Flyers can be glad.

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