At 29-2, they were the winningest team in University of Dayton basketball history. They hadn’t lost a game in 81 days. Their 20-game winning streak was the longest in the nation.
And yet as the Dayton Flyers flew back home from Brooklyn on Thursday – following first the cancellation of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, where they were the No. 1 seed, and then the NCAA Tournament cancellation – they felt an overwhelming sense of loss.
“It was a pretty quiet trip and just real disappointing,” recalled junior guard Ibi Watson.
“That trip back just didn’t seem real,” Flyers sophomore Dwayne Cohill said early Saturday afternoon at the exact same time UD should have been playing in the A-10 semifinals at the Barclays Center.
Instead, he was back at his apartment next to the UD campus which was shut down by school officials three days earlier because of the COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping across not just our nation, but the globe.
“Right now I’m just trying to stay away from twitter and social media and be around my teammates,” he said.
Cam Greer, a junior walk-on from Chicago, said even the comfort of teammates and coaches didn’t help on that flight back from New York City:
“It almost felt like we had lost a game. It was the same feeling. And the hard part was that we had nothing to do with it. And the worst thing was that we were left with no hope. This wasn’t like the NBA, where everything was suspended or postponed. It was over. Guys dreams had been crushed just like that.
“This team had so much potential. There was so much more we were sure we could do. Now we’ll never know. The whole world will never know. It’s heartbreaking.”
The Dayton Flyers are feeling what so many other teams across the country are experiencing – and that includes the Dayton Flyers women’s team which was headed to the NCAA Tournament and the crosstown Wright State Raiders’ men’s team which was 25-7 and NIT bound – as the coronavirus takes an unprecedented toll on everyday life as we know it.
The city of Dayton and the surrounding Miami Valley especially feels the Flyers’ loss. The team – a ball-sharing, deadly-shooting, high-flying bunch that rocked UD Arena night after night – had provided a much-needed lift to a town that had suffered blow after blow last year, including several Memorial Day tornadoes and the early August mass shooting in the Oregon District.
A Flyers season for the ages salved some of that hurt and it seemed certain the medicine was only going to get better in March. Some people already were predicting the team, in line for a No. 1 seed to the NCAA Tournament, would make the Final Four.
After the final home game, a 76-51 victory over George Washington that made the Flyers 18-0 in conference play, UD guard Jalen Crutcher stood in the middle of the court surrounded by celebrating teammates and fans and gushed: “I really think our team can win a national championship.”
That would have sounded outlandish coming from UD players most years, but this season was different and many in the college basketball world knew it.
When the tournament was cancelled, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told reporters he felt sorry for Dayton.
In the past sports has always provided the comforting cadence in troubled times.
President Franklin Roosevelt instructed Major League Baseball to keep playing during World War II to give the American people some joy in their lives.
After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 shook our country to the core, the sports schedule resumed soon after and provided a sliver of normalcy.
But this is different.
Instead of just being uplifting and comforting – which would still be the case – sporting events now almost certainly would heighten the spread of the virus, which is more contagious than the flu and 10 times more deadly.
Athletes and coaches would be in jeopardy, as would fans in the packed stadiums and arenas.
Already several athletes have tested positive for COVD 19. The list includes Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell, Real Madrid basketball player Trey Thompkins, Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi and Juventus defender Daniele Rugani.
While the cancellations make sense to the UD players, it doesn’t make it much easier to deal with the immediate hurt.
“I know it takes perspective, but it’s tough dealing with that right now,” Greer admitted. “We know we did all we could, but we know we would have done more.”
Once the Flyers returned to campus, Coach Anthony Grant spoke to the team and then the players went through what has become a daily ritual for them.
“We call it ‘Let Us Be Thankful,’” said Greer. “After every practice we break it down, come together in a circle and someone takes a turn in the middle and talks about what he’s thankful for. But this time we all did it.
“It was basically kind of a farewell and a reminder of everything we’ve done.
“This was the first time I was ever on that was a real team, where there was camaraderie and love for each other and where we won, too.
“I’m from the South Side of Chicago and having an experience like this – including going undefeated in the conference and going to the NCAA Tournament – that’s something we only dream of.”
Tracy Mathews was on her way to Brooklyn Thursday to see her son, Trey Landers, the senior leader of the Flyers, play in UD’s A-10 tournament opener Friday morning. Her fiance’ Eddie was with her as was her best friend Beth Johnson.
She said they had been on the road about five hours and were “somewhere in Pennsylvania” when someone from work called and told her the A-10 Tournament had been cancelled. She said she called Trey, who was still asleep, and broke the news, then the group made a U-turn in their car.
After she got back home that evening, she headed over to Trey’s Caldwell Street apartment with her younger son Tallice.
“I just went over to check on him and the other boys,” she said. “I knew the rest of them, their parents weren’t here so I thought I should be. We just hung out a little while until they settled down. Jalen, Obi, Ibi and Dwayne were there, too. We had some chicken and pizza and we just talked about the season a little.”
While she said her son was disappointed his college career was over just like that — just as it was for fellow senior Ryan Mikesell – Trey did reach out to fans via social media and thank them for their support.
And he’s also shown some excitement via Twitter over a proposal floated by veteran UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma that seniors whose season was cut short be given another year of eligibility by the NCAA.
While Auriemma seemed to focus on the seniors playing cancelled spring sports, Landers hoped it would extend to basketball, as well.
Another silver lining that’s appeared in the dark clouds now over the darkened arenas is the way a few NBA stars have opened their hearts and wallets for arena workers who are suddenly without a job
The Milwaukee Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP of the league, as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers Kevin Love, Detroit’s Blake Griffin and New Orleans’ Zion Williamson each donated $100,000 to help pay salaries of workers in their teams’ arenas.
‘It was a whirlwind’
Leslie Gonya, an avid UD fan who lives in the Oregon District with her husband Jeff, runs Ideal Travel, which takes Flyers fans on trips to many of the team’s away basketball games
She took 52 people this time and when word came that no spectators would be allowed at the games, she said they made the best of it and planned to watch the games from a sports bar. But then the tournament was canceled altogether.
“From 9 in the morning until 10 last night I did my best to help some people make changes to their flights and come back early,” she said Friday. “It was a whirlwind.”
She admitted some of the people were upset by the turn of events.
She and her husband and a handful of other people decided to stay in New York until Sunday evening when they originally planned to come home.
She said she and Jeff would do a little sightseeing, visit their favorite piano bar and maybe go to the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan.
While there, I suggested she could visit the area around the pools that includes the names Kristy Irvine Ryan, Mary Lenz Wieman, Al Niedermeyer II, Joe Zuccala, David Wisnall and William Eben Wilson.
Their names are engraved in bronze alongside the other 2,977 victims from the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the United Flight 93 that crashed in a Pennsylvania field and the WTC bombing in 1993.
All six of them were once Dayton Flyers.
Like Cam Greer said, you need some perspective at a time like this.
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