“We were doing lay-ups at halftime and I went to shoot a three,” Obi Toppin remembered afterward with a grin. “Jalen said ‘No! Go dunk the ball!’ He didn’t want me shooting out there.”
The way Crutcher saw it, why mess with success.
»RELATED: 5 takeaways from UD’s 39-point win
Toppin, UD’s 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman, was a one-man aerial show against the Titans.
Sixteen seconds after he got into the game in the first half, he dunked an alley-oop pass from guard Trey Landers. Just over a minute later, he dunked another Landers’ lob.
A couple of minutes after that he finished off a Jordan Davis’ alley-oop with a one-hand slam that drew a chorused “Oooooooh!” from the crowd of 12,700.
Before intermission he had another slam and then one more, leaving him with five dunks, one shy of Dayton’s all-time game record of six set by Sean Finn against Prairie View A & M in 2003.
Thanks, in part, to Crutcher’s “don’t ruin a good thing” admonish, Toppin added three more dunks in the second half, including one on a Frankie Policelli assist with 1:47 left that he tomahawked in one-handed from the baseline.
That got what was left of the Arena crowd roaring again.
Toppin ended the game with a career-high 22 points, a team-high 11 rebounds and, of course, the new dunk record.
“Those are exciting plays and they certainly bring energy to his teammates and energy to the fans,” said UD coach Anthony Grant. “They are great momentum swinging plays.”
»RELATED: 20 photos from the game
When Toppin initially came off the bench with 14:36 left in the first half, Dayton held a one-point lead, 12-11. He played all but two minutes of the half after that and the Flyers had a 49-29 advantage at intermission.
“At home, if a team dunks it riles the crowd up and the other team gets like in a shell,” Toppin said.
The night of rile-‘em-up plays and the whopping 39-point victory were just what the Flyers needed following a run of bad luck lately.
After starting the season 4-0, they’d lost three straight games – including a pair of seven-point defeats by No. 4 Virginia and No. 22 Mississippi State – and Monday night Grant announced junior guard Jhery Matos would miss the rest of the season because of torn ligaments in his foot.
A 6-foot-6 junior college transfer who was one of the team’s best defenders, Matos now will undergo surgery after taking his upcoming semester exams.
With a road game at No. 8 Auburn awaiting them Saturday night, the Flyers needed a big lift against Detroit and got it.
Besides Toppin, four other players scored in double figures – Josh Cunningham had 20, Crutcher added 16, Davis, 13 and Ryan Mikesell, 10 – and Davis also did a superb defensive job on the Titans’ Antoine Davis, who came into the game averaging 29.6 points per game, second best in the nation.
Davis ended with a season-low 18 points after going 3 for 14 from three-point range and 6 for 23 overall.
Toppin’s assessment of the game was perfect: “That was the big burst of excitement going into Auburn we needed to show.”
A buzz in the crowd
Already this season there’s a palpable buzz in the crowd when Toppin comes into the game.
His long legs are covered by white tights, the sort of get up many comic book superheroes wear. His equally long arms are tattooed canvasses bearing uplifting messages and images and remembrances of family.
He has his mom’s name, Roni, tattooed inside his right arm and Daniel, his late brother’s name, is inked inside the left.
“He wasn’t a year yet when he passed,” Toppin said quietly. “Something in his head, it burst. He was just one year younger than me.”
Toppin’s left biceps is covered by a large picture of praying hands beneath a basketball.
Conversely, on this night Detroit didn’t have a prayer when Toppin was roaming the baseline against its porous 1-3-1 defense, just looking for the chance to launch himself above the rim.
And he readies himself with much animation – puffing out his cheeks and exhaling air in anticipation, all while signaling teammates with nods, quick looks upward or just raising a long arm skyward
He said the rest of the Flyers know when to throw him the ball, especially Landers and Crutcher.
“I think Obi would tell you he was the beneficiary of his teammates tonight,” Grant said. “They found him. We always talk about playing to our strengths.”
Afterward though Toppin had no idea just how strong he hand been.
He was taken aback when told he had had eight dunks:
“I thought I only had four.”
Long road to UD
Toppin said just a few years ago he thought he’d never be able to dunk….and never did until he was a senior at Ossining High School in New York:
“I swear I never thought it was gonna happen. I thought I was gonna stay the same height, so I’d try to stretch and do everything.
“I got rim-stuffed a lot and used to hurt my elbow trying so hard. But I just couldn’t get it. I wouldn’t even get close. But I just kept trying and senior year I finally made it.”
His high-flying frustration mirrored his struggles getting his basketball career properly off the ground.
After moving to Florida with his mom to help relatives in need, he played basketball as a freshman at Heritage High in Palm Bay, Fla. and as a sophomore at Melbourne Central Catholic. After moving back to New York, he played two seasons in Ossining.
His mom once told me Obi was like his dad, who had been a hoops standout on the playgrounds, AAU circuit and semi-pro leagues of New York, but didn’t initially embrace the classroom.
That and his moving contributed to a lack of scholarship offers for Obi coming out of high school.
To bolster his chances, he moved again, to Baltimore and Mount Zion Prep.
Finally, Dayton made an offer, but Toppin was forced to sit out last season to meet NCAA academic standards. He could practice and he proved to be the consummate teammate – affable, supportive, fully-engaged – in street clothes on the bench.
His mantra for the year was a saying he had tattooed on one arm. He said his mom chose it:
“Success is no accident.”
He worked, took nothing for granted and now all that stored-up talent and desire and emotion is coming out on the court and even off of it.
As Grant held his postgame press conference Tuesday night, Toppin playfully peeked around a curtain behind his unsuspecting coach and smiled and nodded.
If Toppin liked what he was hearing, Grant especially likes what he is seeing:
“Just knowing Obi’s story from high school to prep school, opportunities weren’t there for him.
“And (knowing) what he had to go through in terms of not being allowed to play last year and the road he’s had to take to be able to play college basketball – to see him be able do what he’s doing academically and on the court – I’m really proud of the growth he’s been able to make.”