Dayton’s heartbreaking loss to VCU Saturday came with at least two heroes for the Flyers:
The sold-out crowd at UD Arena and redshirt junior Ryan Mikesell.
Just before the start of the much-anticipated Atlantic 10 showdown – with the music cranked up louder than usual and beloved former UD stars Scoochie Smith and Kendall Pollard making a surprising appearance on the court to swirl white shirts overhead and whip the crowd into a frenzy — the over-hyped Flyer fans, whose “White-Out” look was meant to provide group intimidation, matched the decibels and, at least in the student section, the beat.
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“I couldn’t be prouder of our crowd tonight,” Flyers coach Anthony Grant said after the 69-68 loss. “They were awesome.”
With a tired laugh, he thought back to the 22-point deficit his team had faced and added: “There was a lot of bad going on out there and they stayed with us throughout the night and gave us a chance
“We had to extend some extra minutes with Trey (Landers) out today and a lot of guys were able to play off that energy (the crowd) gave us.”
At least that’s how it was late in the game as the Flyers nearly pulled off one of the biggest comebacks in program history. But at the start there may have been a reverse effect Mikesell admitted:
“I was talking to somebody before the game This group of guys has never really seen UD Arena packed like this. I know my freshman and sophomore years, with VCU, I think we were playing for the championship and it was the same atmosphere. Just people going nuts. It was loud!
“I thought at the beginning of the game were just too antsy (because of it.) But then we finally kind of figure it out in the second half. We started to calm down and bring the fight to them.”
VCU, on the other hand, didn’t seemed to be fazed by the atmosphere Mikesell said:
“They weren’t afraid of the environment. You could tell. They were ready to start the game.”
In the first half the Rams controlled their offensive boards, poured in six three pointers and forced UD into 11 turnovers. That gave them a comfortable 41 29 lead at the break.
While most of the Flyers struggled in the first half – Obi Toppin had four turnovers and two points, Jalen Crutcher also had just two points and Jordan Davis, one – it would have been worse were it not for Mikesell.
The 6-foot-7 forward from St. Henry made 6 of 7 shots for 13 points and had three rebounds, an assist, a steal and blocked shot. Just as important was him talking to his younger teammates, trying to stabilize and refocus them.
“He kept us in the hunt in the first half,” said Grant, who then stressed the things Mikesell does that “don’t show up on the stat sheet.
“Ryan’s a guy who has been reliable all year in terms of whatever we ask him do.”
Mikesell finished with a team-high 22 points, but the most surprising thing may have been that blocked shot ,an effort that would epitomize the Flyers no-quit attitude Saturday.
With 3:20 left in the first half, VCU guard Malik Crowfield stole the ball and was headed down the court for what looked like a sure fast-break layup.
Mikesell – not especially known for his speed or hops – came roaring in behind him, leaped and blocked the shot from behind.
Asked about it later, he shrugged: “I’ve always had pretty good timing. In high school I blocked a lot of shots. Obviously, here, everybody’s a lot bigger, faster, stronger, so I kind of have to be more of a time jumper.”
And with that in mind, let’s do a little time-jumping ourselves
Not up toward the rim – few of us could get there – but back to Saturday’s game and a few of the images and occurrences that stood out:
—LOSS of LANDERS: With junior guard and team energizer Trey Landers suffering a shoulder injury in practice that left him in street clothes Saturday – his left arm and shoulder held in place by an elaborate black brace and sling – the Flyers had only two recruited players, freshman Dwayne Cohill and Frankie Policelli, on the bench. And Policelli, initially scheduled for a redshirt season, isn’t ready for extended minutes and rarely is part of the rotation.
This team already was stretched to the limit and the loss of Landers hurts because he adds energy, muscle and experience. He’s played in 62 games his first three seasons and started 51, including the first 22 this season before Toppin replaced him in the lineup.
Grant wouldn’t specify the injury, but this three-game span of VCU, A-10 leader Davidson and St. Louis is the toughest stretch on the conference schedule and one source said Landers likely won’t play in any of them.
The starting five is getting few breaks and the toll was obvious with 2:27 left when Crutcher – who would have played all 40 minutes – crumpled near the UD foul line with a severe cramp in his left leg.
The arena quieted as UD trainer Mike Mulcahey worked on the point guard for a couple of minutes. Finally, Crutcher was helped to the bench, all while VCU guard Sean Mobley, who had walked away from the Rams huddle, had yelled at the refs to get Crutcher off the court.
Within a minute Crutcher was back in the game.
—THE COMEBACK : With a 12-point lead at intermission, VCU scored 10 straight points to open the second half, thanks in part to a failed defensive switch by the Flyers.
“That zone in the second half was disastrous,” Grant admitted. “They came out and got a 10-0 run and put us in a bind. I’ll take the blame for that. That’s on me.”
Down by 22 with 18 minutes left, the Flyers went on a 26-4 run and took the lead on an alley-oop pass from Crutcher to Toppin, whose dunk gave Dayton the 60-59 lead and caused UD Arena to erupt.
“We had had enough as a group,” Mikesell said. “And when somebody made a play it became contagious and we fed off the energy.”
Toppin and Crutcher combined for 24 points in the comeback.
“Obviously the result is not what we wanted, but I couldn’t be prouder of the fight our guys showed tonight, the character they showed,” Grant said. “The challenge was to be able to stay together, to continue to believe and we did that in good fashion.”
FINAL POSSESSION: After VCU guard Marcus Evans drove through traffic for the winning layup with 6 seconds left, UD had one last chance. The ball was inbounded to Davis, who streaked down the right side of the court.
Grant said he wanted to try to score before VCU had time to set its defense, but De’Riate Jenkins blocked the layup attempt by Davis.
The ball flew out of bounds and after a time out, the Flyers had .7 of a second to try for a miracle. The called play had three options Grant said, but in the scrum beneath the basket, Toppin dropped hard to the floor and the inbounds pass by Mikesell was batted away.
“It was supposed to be a lob pass to O, but they did a good job taking it away ,”Mikesell said. ”I talked to Jalen after the game. He said his guy shrunk in, so I guess he was open in the corner…Learn from it.”
These Flyers are learning and Grant said he saw Saturday’s effort as “a foundation we want to try to build on.”
Mikesell – noting the young team’s fight – said: ‘There a bright future for a lot of these freshmen and sophomores. It should be fun.”
But a lot of folks fueled with the expectations of this season might not yet be ready for another time jump…to next season.