Archdeacon: Dayton’s Kozlova deserves a little sunshine

So this is pretty much the way Dorothy felt in the Wizard of Oz.

“This is my home,” Taisiya Kozlova said softly as she stood outside the celebratory Dayton Flyers’ locker room following Wednesday night’s 65-51 victory over La Salle in the home finale at UD Arena and pointed to a simply drawn tattoo on her right inner arm, just beneath the elbow.

It depicted a little house that had smoke coming out of the chimney, flowers growing nearby and someone looking out the window.

“And these are my cats,” she said of the two feline figures lounging at the end of the lane that led to the house. “Up above, that’s the sunshine”

Her sun had a smiling face.

Too bad life doesn’t always imitate art.

The UD women’s team has faced overwhelming odds this season and no player more so than Kozlova, the 6-foot-1 junior from Moscow, Russia, who has painfully endured the heartaches and travails that have come from her country’s invasion of Ukraine exactly a year ago today.

An often-quiet young woman of conviction and compassion and courage, she has, in the past – both when playing for Maryland last season and soon after announcing her transfer to UD last spring – voiced her disagreement with her country’s actions.

On her Adidas sneakers before a Big Ten Tournament game last March, she printed “Het Bonhe” (Stop War) on one shoe and “Stand with Ukraine” and a heart on the other.

While that got her praise in many quarters, it has also brought some critics and strained relationships, including with her parents, who have an opposing view of the war.

She hasn’t been back to Moscow since last February, when her return flight to the U.S. — just days after the conflict began — was turned back when it entered Canadian airspace.

Regardless, she has forged ahead this season and only one Flyer has played in more games than her.

After Wednesday’s triumph, UD coach Tamika Williams-Jeter had nothing but praise for her:

“She’s absolutely our hardest working person, on and off the floor. She takes the most classes, gets the best grades.

“Boom…Boom…Boom, she does it all

“She’s the farthest from home and she’s done it all against the backdrop of what’s happening between our countries. At times, she’s not been able to talk to her parents, but she’s ridden through the sad moments and hasn’t wavered.

“She’s been a good pickup for us. She’s the kind of kid you want to start and build your foundation and culture on. And she’s not afraid to stand for something and go against the grain and speak out.”

Wednesday night Kozlova said she didn’t regret her actions last spring:

“I always feel in a situation like that, if you have an opportunity to speak out, you have to. It’s not whether you want to or don’t, you have to speak up.”

Williams Jeter said Kozlova is “well thought of among our players,” and the Flyers needed someone like her to help hold this effort together this season.

Wednesday night was the fifth game in row the team had only five scholarship players and a freshman walk-on in uniform — La Salle dressed 14 players — and yet it has won three of those five games in a season otherwise short on victories.

With only Saturday’s road game at Rhode Island left in the regular season — and then the Atlantic 10 Tournament —Dayton is 6-19 and 5-9 in the conference.

Against the Explorers, all five of UD’s players scored in double figures and three had double-digit rebounds, .

Kozlova, who finished with 10 points, set the tone early with two straight three pointers and then hit a huge, pressurized trey from the corner to help UD fend off LaSalle (16-13) which never led, but had cut a 17-point deficit to six late in the game.

Other times his year the short-handed and often-exhausted Flyers have faded down the stretch. They lost three games this season by a single point, another in overtime and another in double OT.

That was not the case Wednesday. The Flyers not only withstood the LaSalle charge, but then expanded their lead in the final minutes.

The crowd loved it. Time and again, UD president Eric Spina, sitting courtside, stood and cheered their efforts. After the game, the cheerleaders lined up to congratulate the players.

And in the raucous dressing room later, the jubilant Flyers drenched Williams-Jeter with water, sports drinks …and love.

Sense of community

Kozlova, who wanted to play basketball and get a college education — a one or the other choice in Russia, she said — came to the U.S. alone at age 17 and played a season at the now defunct Elevation Prep in Sarasota, Fla.

She ended up at Maryland, one of college basketball’s best programs, played sparingly on two NCAA Tournament teams and transferred to Dayton.

Wednesday night she praised the Terrapins’ program, but said he was glad she transferred. She’s getting a lot more playing time — in the past five UD games she’s played 184 minutes, which is about half of her court time in two seasons at Maryland — and in the process she feels more a part of the program:

“The people here are amazing and the sense of community is on another level. Everyone — the staff, the players, the coaches, the community — has been so attentive. I don’t get just one invitation to family celebrations like Christmas and Easter, I get five.”

On the court — with injuries, COVID and a limited roster to begin with — the Flyers often have been short-handed, but its bonded the remaining players, she said:

“Our small group of people against a big group, quite honestly, it’s empowering.”

‘Home is always with me’

Yet, there can be a downside. As players tire and with only one true ball-handler in point guard Sydney Freeman, who played all 40 minutes and led UD with 18 points, the miscues often mount.

Against La Salle, the Flyers had a season-high 33 turnovers.

The saving grace was that they out-rebounded La Salle, 55-28. And the Explorers, No. 13 in the nation in three-point attempts, made just 6 of 38 (15.8 percent) from beyond the arc.

Returning to the floor after a timeout with 4:45 left in the game, the Flyers, who led by 10, made a vow.

“In previous games, that’s exactly the moment where we would fall apart,” Kozlova said. “We’d lose focus, break and give up the game we’d been controlling.

“This time we thought, ‘We’re not going to fall apart. We can finish strong.’”

Just 12 seconds after play resumed, Kozlova, who leads the team in treys, didn’t hesitate when she got the ball deep on the baseline and launched a perfect three

Although La Salle would then score seven straight points, that was it for the Explorers. UD added the game’s last eight points.

Freeman hit a crushing three pointer with 80 seconds left. She added two free throws, as did Mariah Perez and Kozlova closed out the night with a free throw.

Perez finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Arianna Smith had 11 points and 15 rebounds and Anyssa Jones added 12 points and 11 boards.

In the hallway later, Kozlova was asked about the significance of her Russian-made tattoo.

“This way home is always with me,” she said.

As for her parents, she explained: “Family bond is on a different level. It’s very strong and it doesn’t matter how many differences you have, you’ll always feel connected.”

As she spoke you noticed another small, easy-to-miss tat on the inner wrist of her right am. In colorful letters it spelled out “HOPE.”

“I just got it recently,” she said. “I have gone through a lot of hardships and struggles, not only this year, but in my whole life.

“And this reminds me, where there’s a struggle, where there’s something that you think you can’t overcome, you always have to have hope. It will get you through it.”

And when she hit that deep three late in the game, you noticed she held the follow-through statue-like an extra second or two. Her extended right arm was frozen high in air with her HOPE tattoo pointed straight at the basket as the ball ripped the net cords.

So maybe life does imitate art.

Maybe the sun is smiling down of Taisiya Kozlova.

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