Just 92 seconds into the game, Obi Toppin – the Dayton Flyers 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman just voted the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year – made a sweet-looking three pointer from the wing to give UD a quick 3-0 lead over Saint Louis in the quarterfinals of the confernece tournament at the Barclays Center late Friday night.
Toppin’s face lit up and, as he turned to run back down the floor, he looked toward the UD bench and just behind it where his mom and other friends and family sat – some with big signs welcoming him back home to Brooklyn – and extended a long, tattooed arm skyward and then flashed three fingers.
But rather than signal a night of success – as well as grand homecoming for a kid raised much of his life in Brooklyn and, most importantly, the beginning of UD’s surge through a suddenly cleared path to an NCAA Tournament bid that would come with three wins in three days – the three fingers ended up standing for something far different.
This night would end up being the third year in a row that UD would lose its first game in the A-10 Tournament.
In a total collapse down the stretch, the Flyers were outscored 11-4 in the final 4:44 of Friday’s game and fell to Saint Louis, 64-55.
Last year UD lost its first game to VCU and in 2017 it was beaten by Davidson.
This loss was especially disappointing because it was hoped the tournament would be a clear sign that UD finally had turned the corner on last year’s disappointing 14-17 campaign.
And while the Flyers are now 21-11, they came apart in their first test of the postseason.
Although both top-seeded VCU and No. 5 George Mason – the only two A-10 teams Dayton did not beat this season – lost Friday, UD couldn’t capitalize on their rivals’ misfortune.
There’ll be no NCAA Tournament for the Flyers and now they’re left hoping the NIT has room for them in its field of 32 teams which will be announced late Sunday night after the unveiling of the premier tournament is done.
Dayton’s postgame dressing room was somber and while a few players mustered some enthusiasm for an NIT bid, the suggestion was initially a bit off-key for junior Ryan Mikesell.
“Right now I’m just not thinking about…aaaah, I’m just upset,” he said quietly. ”I just feel for a guy like Josh Cunningham and Jack Westerfield, our two seniors. Those dudes have been unbelievable for four years. We wanted to send them out better.”
He shook his head, went silent a couple of seconds, then shrugged:
“That’s the way basketball crumbles sometimes.”
And trust me, the Flyers crumbled.
They were done in by the Billikens’ late-game grit – Saint Louis coach Travis Ford said he kept telling his players to “keep digging…keep digging” in the final minutes – and by the 1-3-1 zone Saint Louis threw at UD in the second half.
But in classic out-of-the-mouths-of-babes style, Flyer freshman Dwayne Cohill explained it better than any of his older teammates afterward:
“They came out and were very aggressive and physical with us, but I don’t think it’s anything they did as much as we just beat ourselves. We had a couple of bad possessions where we turned the ball over. On defense there were times we didn’t box out.
“We just beat ourselves.”
The Flyers had 16 turnovers and they let Saint Louis dominate inside.
Granted part of the problem was that Toppin was not himself after banging knees with the Billikens’ 6-foot-8, 240-pound D. J. Foreman with just over six minutes left in the first half.
Toppin started the game strong by blocking Saint Louis’s first shot – a jumper by Hasahn French - and then also smothering a dunk attempt by Foreman. He hit the three and a lay-up and grabbed a rebound – but then came the injury to his left knee.
He hobbled to the sideline where UD trainer Mike Mulcahey worked on his knee and then the pair slipped into the dressing room where Toppin said Mulcahey continued to stretch and massage it.
Toppin returned to the bench for the final minutes of the half and as he sat there, he kept pulling his leg back in hopes, he said, of “keeping it from stiffening up.”
He played much of the second half, but he was limited.
He made just one of his six shots. Late in the game, when there was a loose ball on the court near his feet, he had trouble getting down to get it.
Most telling was an alley-oop pass that came in to him from fellow big man Josh Cunningham.
At UD Arena, Flyers fans have watched countless times as he’s snagged those lobs midair and slammed them for gym-shaking dunks.
This time he caught it almost flat-footed and as he tried go to the rim, his shot was blocked from behind.
“He went out and sacrificed his body for us tonight,” Cunningham said. “ He tried his best even though he wasn’t 100 percent.”
Coach Anthony Grant saluted Toppin afterward:
“We were hoping (his knee) would loosen up a bit and he went our there and he battled and he tried, but obviously it wasn’t what were used to seeing.”
But no one used the injury as an excuse, especially Toppin.
“It just wasn’t my night,” he said.
It wasn’t anybody’s night.
Mikesell went 0-for-6 from the floor.
Cunningham, seemingly forgotten by his guards sometimes, took just one shot and had two rebounds in the second half, and finished the night with seven points and five boards.
Although point guard Jalen Crutcher led the way with 18 points, he also had five turnovers. Toppin had four.
The Billikens dominated in the second half.
They had 11 second-chance points, UD had none. They out-rebounded the Flyers in the final 20 minutes (20-15), shot better (57.1 percent to 34.6 percent) and had fewer turnovers.
All that erased the Flyers one-point lead at halftime.
Down the stretch, the Flyers body language during breaks on the floor seemed to show a team resigned to its demise. Meanwhile, the Billikens were unrelenting.
“This really hurts,” guard Jordan Davis said afterward.
And that feeling is now compounded by the uncertainty that comes with the Flyers’ fate said junior Trey Landers:
“Now we’ve just got to wait and see if we get a bid. We no longer control what happens us.”
While Grant said he’d “love” for his team to get a chance to continue to play, he too admitted it was out of his team’s hands.
He hoped what the team had accomplished during the season would not be eclipsed by “one bad night.”
But, as Mikesell put it earlier:
“That’s the way basketball crumbles sometimes.”