Were the Flyers done in by Fatts Russell or fat heads?
Was it way too much of one 6-foot-8 guy inside and far too little from another 6-8 guy?
Or, was it the missed treys or the Trey misses?
However you rhyme and reason it, the Dayton Flyers were stunned by Rhode Island, 72-70, in overtime Friday night at UD Arena. Just three weeks earlier UD had trounced the host Rams by 29 points.
The Flyers had come into Friday night riding a three-game winning streak and triumphant in seven of their last nine games.
They had a packed house, filled to the rafters with 13,000-plus raucous and renewed believers, and they had the opportunity to set themselves up nicely for a double bye in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, which would begin 12 days later.
And then, as junior forward Ryan Mikesell so succinctly put it:
“We laid an egg.”
Afterward, Flyers head coach Anthony Grant was in no mood for one of my questions and I understand.
Following a few of his answers filled with disappointment and some self-flagellation, I asked Grant about Mikesell, who was one of only two Flyers players who showed fight throughout the game.
Before I’d finished my thought I could see it was like I’d made him swig some castor oil.
“Yeah…I guess right now I’m not in…aaah, it’s always going to be a team game,” he finally said. “We play to win, that’s the goal. As a unit today we didn’t do the things we needed to do, individually and collectively, to take care of what we needed to take care of today.
“We play to win. At the end of the day that’s what we expect.”
Translation: I’m not going to talk about silver linings, moral victories or a comforting prospect.
“I’m disappointed with our performance tonight,” he said. “Right now it hurts. It stings.”
The coach wasn’t going to single out anyone who had played well, even though the list would have been short. And even that came with at least one asterisk.
Mikesell had the best night of his UD career. He scored a career-high 23 points on 7-for-10 shooting from the floor and was 8 for 9 from the foul line. He tied a career high with 11 rebounds.
The other positive player was 6-9 freshman Obi Toppin, who tied a career-high 26 points and added 11 rebounds and seven assists. But he also had a costly turnover with just 61 seconds left in overtime and UD trailing, 72-70.
Just as Grant wasn’t going to acknowledge individual accomplishment, he wasn’t going to point the finger at anyone who hadn’t played well either
And that list was longer:
Josh Cunningham, the 6-foot-8, fifth-year senior — initially considered the cornerstone of this team — had a subpar night. He took just three shots, made one and finished with four points and five rebounds.
Sophomore guard Jordan Davis, in what’s been a roller-coaster season of glory and game-long disappearance, went 1 for 4 from three-point range and ended with five points.
Point guard Jalen Crutcher, playing a yeoman’s 43 minutes, 51 seconds, was 0 for 4 from behind the arc (the Flyers were 3 for 14 overall) and had six turnovers, those negatives cancelling out his eight points and six assists.
And finally Landers – sidelined 10 days earlier with a sore shoulder – came off the bench to try to add energy to a moribund team, but missed a desperate tip in to win the game at the end of regulation and then a short jumper with a Rams’ defender draped on him to tie at the end of overtime. He also committed three turnovers, including a costly one with 1:46 left in overtime.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island – which came in with a 13-14 record that included that 77-48 beat down by the Flyers on Feb. 9 – took it to UD from the opening tip.
“They brought the fight to us,” Mikesell said. “They were up in our stuff.”
Toppin agreed: “They came in with a lot more energy than we had. I felt they dominated us in every aspect of the game. We just weren’t ready to play.”
The Rams’ 6-8 Cyril Langevine was “a beast” as Mikesell put it. He made 12 of 14 shots for 26 points, had eight rebounds and blocked three Flyers’ shots.
“He does it all down there,” Mikesell said. “I think he’s averaging 14 and 10. He might be the only guy in the A-10 averaging a double double.
“He’s a stud.”
And the big difference between the teams’ first meeting and Friday night was Fatts Russell.
In that 29-point loss, the Rams 5-foot-10 guard did not score. This time – thanks to 4-for-9 shooting from three-point range – he had 23 points along with five assists and four steals.
“Fatts got it going,” Mikesell said. “You could tell he had a little more swagger out there. He wanted to go out and prove something to us…And a credit to him, he did.”
Toppin touched on the same theme: “We knew they were going to come in here with a lot of heart because of what we did to them at their home.”
And there is the crux of it.
On a night Rhode Island showed its backbone, UD lost its identity.
The Flyers have played best when their backs are to the wall, when they – similar to Fatts — have something to prove.
Friday night UD too often was “lackadaisical,” again Mikesell’s word. Some of it you might attribute to the late-season weariness that can come with a short bench and starters playing lots of minutes when you have four games in 10 days.
But I think the real culprit was that the Flyers forgot who they were.
Just three days earlier they had gone on the road and romped over UMass by 24. And in the week prior to that they had beaten preseason favorite Saint Louis by eight and A-10 leader Davidson by one on the Wildcats’ court.
Toss in that drubbing of the Rams earlier in the month and the Flyers might have felt winning in the rocking setting Friday night would be easy.
Grant zeroed in on that point:
“We can’t take anything for granted at any point. We’re not that team. We’ve struggled with that and make it harder than it needs to be for whatever reason.”
When it comes to A-10 games, the Flyers have played better on the road than at home this season. At UD Arena, they’ve lost to George Mason, VCU and now Rhode Island by a total of seven points.
“Good teams are at their best when the best is required,” Grant said.
The 19-10 Flyers are not a great team under any circumstances – they have too many holes and too few bodies – and Friday night they weren’t even good for critical stretches of the game. In the first half their defense was a sieve and in overtime they made one miscue after another.
There have been times this year when Grant praised his team after losses.
“We’ve had nights when we played hard and fought and haven’t come out on the right side of it,’” he said. “But I’ll let you guys know, tonight wasn’t one of those nights.”
This was a night the Flyers laid an egg.
And, as Grant made quite clear, it was not a sunny-side egg.
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