WASHINGTON D.C. – They lost “the head of the snake” as the Dayton Flyers call their frenetic, pesky and always hard to contain point guard, Malachi Smith, to an ankle injury Saturday afternoon.
When you’ve suddenly lost your fangs, forked tongue, venom and bite, you’re not going to scare too many people.
That’s what happened to UD against a veteran Richmond team that was able to come back from a 15-point deficit in the second half of their Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinal matchup and stun the Flyers 68-64.
In the process they likely derailed any chance the Flyers had of making the NCAA Tournament.
In the final minute some in the Richmond crowd at the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C, gave the slumping Flyers a numbing send off, chanting “NIT...NIT…NIT.”
It’s a harsh reality for a young Flyers team with some much promise.
Coming into Saturday’s game, UD had won eight of its last nine games and throughout the season had had some especially impressive victories over Kansas, Virginia Tech and Davidson, who will now face Richmond for the A-10 Championship today.
But the 23-10 Flyers had some glaring losses this year, three to lowly-rated teams early in the season and then a February 26 flop with A-10 basement dweller LaSalle.
While this is not as tough of a pill to swallow as two years ago when the 29-2 Flyers had their postseason dreams taken away from them by the COVID pandemic that stilled basketballs everywhere, it’s still a blow,
Dayton led 42-27 with 16:44 to go Saturday, but by then script was being written.
Smith already was on the end bench with his shoe off, his left ankle taped and a dejected look on his face.
Soon Richmond’s veteran team – the Spiders started three grad students, a senior and a junior and had three more grad players on the bench – began to take control.
“At the 12 minute mark I could tell their veteran guys were starting to assert themselves,” Flyers coach Anthony Grant said. “The challenge was for us to answer the call and unfortunately we weren’t able to do that on either side of the ball.”
Richmond’s press was forcing the Flyers into turnovers and UD was suddenly unable to penetrate and ended up taking forced shots outside.
That’s where Smith can make a difference, but as the lead slowly evaporated, he was moved from the bench to the locker room where his emotions were said to get the most of him.
His father eventually came to the locker room to calm him.
The Flyers had no such comforter on the court and afterward they admitted they missed Smith.
“That’s the head of the snake. And without the point guard, it can be pretty challenging,” said 6-foot-10 freshman DaRon Holmes, who finished with 15 points.
Toumani Camara led UD with 17 points and 14 rebounds, but he too admitted the team missed Smith: “It affected us a lot. He has big character and influences us a lot whether its playing our outside the court. It took a toll on us.”
Grant said Smith was really disappointed after the game:
“It’s hard when you lose a guy that does as much as he does for us. They were able to extend the pressure and create some turnovers and we weren’t as connected as we needed to be in terms of being able to flow without him on the floor.”
When the game ended, Holmes sought out Koby Brea, the Flyers three-point sharp shooter, who couldn’t find his range late.
“I just wanted to let him m know that we’re not done yet,” Holmes said. “You’ve got to keep your head up and keep moving forward. We’re a great team and we’re going to do great things in the future. I just tried to remind him that we’re not done yet. We can’t let this game impact our future. We’re going to be great.”
With all the young talent the Flyers have -- Holmes, Smith, Brea, Mustapha Amzil, Kobe Elvis, and RJ Blakney are all true or redshirt freshmen – the Flyers likely will be great in the future,
But as far the present?
Those NIT chants, as disheartening as they were, were pretty loud.