Archdeacon: A teary UD Arena farewell for Flyers’ Layfield

It had been her last time playing at UD Arena and at mid-court it hit her.

JaVonna Layfield — biting her lip to try to stave off the welling emotion — stopped near the big logo and slowly surveyed the scene Wednesday night.

Her coach, Shauna Green, was behind her, wearing a headset as she talked to the radio guys on press row. A couple of her Dayton Flyers teammates were down beyond he baseline, reaching out to fans who hung across the railing.

Across the gleaming floor, her dad was up in the stands near the players’ tunnel, a camera to his eye as he filmed her home-court farewell.

And up above her the giant video scoreboard put a bright light exclamation point on the night:

Dayton 71, George Mason 66.

As she took it all in, Layfield’s eyes began to water and soon spilled over.

And as you followed the tracks of her tears — down her cheeks and across the 2 ½-inch scar beyond the left side of her mouth — she tried unsuccessfully to dab them away with the shoulder strap of her uniform.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “This is emotional. It finally hit me: I’m not gonna set foot on this court again in a Dayton jersey.

“I’d always wanted to leave here one day knowing that I had contributed to the program. Not necessarily to be known, but to have contributed.”

»PODCAST: Listen to Mike Hartsock’s interview with Jenna Burdette

She certainly has done that.

Wednesday, she led the UD women to their 16th straight victory, a streak that includes a 15-0 mark in the Atlantic 10 Conference with one regular season road game left. Playing the entire 40 minutes, she finished with 18 rebounds, 14 points, five assists, three block shots, two steals and not one turnover.

The 5-foot-10 senior forward is averaging 11.8 points and 13.1 rebounds per game. She is third in NCAA Division I in rebounds and the only player under 6 feet among the top 15.

Yet the stats don’t tell as much of the story as the scars.

“She’s a battler,” her grandfather, Larry O’Bannon Sr., would say later as he and the rest of their contingent from Louisville embraced her in the stands. “She’s got battle scars.”

Out at mid-court, JaVonna went through some of those marks, which are more like badges to her grit and perseverance.

“This one is from someone’s fingernail in the La Salle game,” she said as she ran a finger along the mark outside her mouth. “It bled and this is how it healed.”

She then touched a mark on her forehead: “This is from the Fordham game on Senior Night. Another fingernail.”

Inside her left biceps was another scar.

“It’s from earlier in the year,” she shrugged. “I don’t remember which game.”

She does remember the game against George Washington when she drove past Kelsi Mahoney on the baseline and 6-foot-5 Kelli Prange “slid up underneath me as I went up. When I came down, I landed right on my tail bone. That hurt.”

And there was the game sophomore year against Saint Louis when she lunged for a ball and the Billikens’ 6-foot 3 Sadie Stipanovich and Olivia Jakubicek landed on her head:

“It was like ‘Bop!’ I got a concussion and missed one game.”

As she spoke you noticed the latest souvenir glistening red above her right armpit. That had just come from the nail of George Mason guard Sarah Kaminski, who had fouled her as she went for layup in the final minute.

The two had an extended tangle-up and while Kaminski was assessed a personal, Layfield got hit with a technical for her response.

“She grabbed me and scratched me here,” Layfield said. “I was just trying to release myself and as I threw my arms up, she went with the theatrics and started falling back.”

The ensuing free throws cut the Flyers’ lead to 67-64.

The teams both added two free throws, and with some 13 seconds left and UD still up three, Flyers point guard Jenna Burdette — Layfield’s roommate the past three years — brought the ball across mid-court and was dribbling elusively to drain some time before the Patriots could foul.

That’s when Layfield got her redemption.

With all attention on the ball, she maneuvered herself to an unguarded spot in front of the basket and that’s when Burdette delivered the perfect pass for an easy lay-up with four seconds left.

It would be the final play between the pair on their home court.

“Telepathy,” is the way Layfield described the connection with Burdette. “It just comes from knowing each other and playing together a few years. We really feel one another out there.”

‘We just meshed’

The two first met in June 2014. It was UD summer school and they were two new recruits.

Burdette is from tiny Coolville — population 496 — near the Ohio River and Layfield is from Louisville.

Burdette is white, Layfield black, but their biggest difference was their personalities.

“We were two completely different people,” Layfield said. “She was quiet and shy and kept away. I was outgoing and loud.”

“We didn’t really hit it off very well at first,” Burdette laughed. “She’s pretty loud.”

“But I knew we were gonna develop a friendship,” Layfield said. “It just took us a minute to really sniff each other out and get to know each other.”

Burdette nodded: “We understood each other’s struggles and that made us closer. We realized none of that other stuff mattered and we just meshed.”

Initially each had to adjust to her new role on a veteran-laden squad that would go all the way to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight and even lead UConn at the half before faltering down the stretch.

“I remember her freshman year on the phone, talking about how she was having trouble adjusting,” Tim Barnett, Layfield’s AAU and high school coach, said after Wednesday night. “She went from being the stud (at Ballard High School) to just finding out what her role was.”

As Layfield and Burdette grew on the court, they did the same off it.

“I love her, that’s my girl,” Layfield said. “We don’t see color, never. We’ve grown into best friends. That’s why we’ve picked each other to live with the last three school years and summers.”

As she thought about that, she teared again:

“This place has been wonderful for me. It’s my home. It’s where I’ve been built as both a player and a young woman.”

Found her niche

The pair are the cornerstones of this year’s 22-4 team.

The 5-foot-8 Burdette, who’s scored 1,281 career points, leads the Flyers with a 16.3-point average. Layfield, who saw limited playing time her first two seasons, now has 784 career rebounds and 774 points.

“I had to find a niche here,” Layfield admitted. “When you have players like Andrea Hoover, Ally Malott, Saicha Grant Allen, Jodie (Cornelie-Sigmundova), Amber (Deane), Kelley (Austria) and Jenna, you have to find where you fit.

“For me, it was to play as hard as I can and go get the ball. It was crash the boards at both ends, play defense and then put the ball in the basket when the opportunity came.”

“It’s not about the size of the person, it’s the size of the heart.”

Shauna Green agreed: “I love her toughness and her energy. You can’t box her out. She just has a knack.”

Although Natalie Butler, George Mason’s 6-foot-5 center, led the nation in rebounding and was a force again, Layfield held her own.

“J just beat her to the ball,” Green said. “She’s made a living that way. It’s become her identity.”

And so it was pure poetry that the game actually didn’t end with Layfield’s final basket.

George Mason got two final shots before the buzzer. Both missed and on the last one Layfield snatched the ball from Butler for her 18th rebound.

“I wanted to leave everything I had out here on the floor one last time,” she said through the tears. “And tonight I think I did.”

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