It was a split-second decision and it affected the rest of his night.
With just under three minutes to play in the first half Tuesday night and Virginia Commonwealth leading 31-28, Obi Toppin stole a pass by the Rams’ Keshawn Curry and came bounding down Tom Blackburn Court on a frantic break-away that would – as has happened so many times in his two-year career with the Dayton Flyers – almost certainly end with a rim-rocking dunk.
Except this time there was a big difference.
His tender left ankle was more heavily taped than usual in an effort to combat the lingering effects of a sprain he’d suffered early in the second half of last Saturday’s victory over UMass. After being helped off the court then, he hadn’t returned to the bench until just a few minutes remained and he was wearing a protective boot.
While he said UD trainer Mike Mulcahey had tended to him superbly since the injury – “We have the No. 1 trainer in the country, for sure,” Toppin said Tuesday – the 6-foot-9 leaper admitted he felt some discomfort early in the VCU game.
And prior to this steal, he uncharacteristically had had a jump shot blocked by the Rams’ Marcos Santos-Silva and had missed a dunk when he couldn’t quite corral a Jalen Crutcher lob pass.
But now he was a step ahead of the VCU defenders, roaring toward the Flyers basket as a sold-out UD Arena crowd – which included nine NBA scouts – fixated on what was about to unfold:
Would this be another high-flying finish? Or, a scaled back, cautious attempt by a wounded and wary warrior?
In a split second Toppin decided to plant his right foot – not his usual left – and go soaring up for a windmill, left-handed dunk worthy of any highlight reel and one that left the crowd standing and roaring in delight.
As he’d been coming down the court, Toppin said: “I was definitely thinking about it.” At the last instant he said he decided to launch off his right foot so he could power upward like he wanted.
“After I got that first dunk, I knew I was gonna be good after that,” he said.
And was he ever.
In the second half he fueled a 22-0 Dayton run with three dunks and a total of nine points and that turned a tie game into a one-sided affair.
Finally, with just 38 seconds left, Toppin scored the game’s last points on yet another dunk – his fifth of the game, 57th of the season, 140th of his career – that left the raucous Red Scare student section chanting: “Obi!…Obi!…Obi!”
The 79-65 Dayton victory broke a four-game losing streak to VCU, though the Rams still hold an 11-6 advantage all-time in a series that has fast become an intense rivalry.
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Toppin finished with 24 points and nine rebounds. Going into Wednesday night’s Atlantic 10 games, he led the conference in scoring (19.5 ppg) and field goal percentage (62.7)
Tuesday night, though, he was not the only Flyers’ standout.
Crutcher had 20 points and five assists, Ibi Watson added 13 points off the bench and senior Trey Landers — the “glue of our team,” Toppin called him — had 16 points and nine rebounds.
“He does all the dirty stuff for us like diving on the floor, getting the tough rebounds, the 50-50 balls, and blocking shots,” Toppin added. “We love him for that.”
The other star was Dayton’s defense, which forced VCU into three-for-20 shooting from long range and held the Rams scoreless for a span of 6 minutes and 44 seconds in the second half. All those stops also prevented VCU from effectively using its vaunted full-court press.
But all that said, the pro scouts were there to see Toppin, who is projected to be a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
And while he gave them some of his usual arsenal – a spectacular slam, a long-range three and some steady rebounding – he showed them something he hasn’t had to put on display that much this season. It’s something that may have impressed them more than anything else Tuesday night.
Toppin showed some grit against the physical Rams.
“I love what he did tonight,” Landers said after the game.
Flyers coach Anthony Grant had a similar assessment:
“Credit goes to Obi and our medical staff. He really wanted to play in the game and did everything he needed to do make sure he was safe and healthy and able to contribute today. He did a great job.”
When Toppin was backpedaling down the court last Saturday, he stepped on a UMass player’s foot and they both crumpled to the floor near midcourt as did another Minuteman who tripped over them.
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In the stands, Roni Toppin – Obi’s mom who had come in from New York with Obi’s uncle Victor Monaros – was immediately panicked.
“My uncle told me she was about to call Mike as soon as it happened,” Toppin grinned. “He told my mom to calm down, that everything would be fine.”
A big reason for that was Mulcahey, Toppin said repeatedly Tuesday night:
“I knew he was gonna make sure it felt better by game time. Right after (Saturday’s game) he had me ice it and do stim treatment (electrical stimulation) for a couple of hours. Then he let me go home with ice and the stim machine and I did that every other hour.
“Mike told me the more you ice it, the more you stim, the better it’s going to feel, so I was on top of that for two days.”
“At first tonight it was bothering me some, but as I got into the flow of the game and my adrenaline started to pump more, it got a little better.”
It was important Toppin play in Tuesday’s showdown, not just for his box score numbers, but for what his presence on the court means to his teammates.
“Obi is dominant,” Landers said. “I tell him every day, ‘You have to know how dominant you are.’ What I mean is that sometimes we don’t have to run plays. Sometimes we’ll just throw him the ball and let him go play. Let him just dominate.”
Toppin showed a few flashes of that Tuesday, but one thing that was on full display once again was his conviviality on the court.
He talks and quips and laughs with everyone. Before and after the games it’s with the fans. During the heat of battle, he chats up the referees, his own teammates and always the players from the other team.
He talks to opposing players before the opening tip and to anyone lined up next to him as they wait to rebound a free throw attempt. He talks to rivals as he stands at midcourt before the Flyers try to break the press and as they position themselves on in-bounds plays, too.
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It’s lighthearted and he laughs and often the opponents do, too.
“We’re all friends,’ Toppin explained afterward. “We’re playing basketball, a sport we all love and we’re just having some side conversations.”
A grinning Landers said: “Sometimes I tell him, ‘Obi focus!’ but that’s just him. That’s his personality. He laughs and jokes. He’s just a funny, goofy guy. He’s never a guy who gets too intense on someone.”
Call it killing them with kindness.
And, of course, those dunks, right-handed and now…with a windmill left.
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