Archdeacon: ‘The crowd made it impossible for us to lose’

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Dayton vs. Illiois-Chicago: Scenes from UD Arena on Nov. 9, 2021

Dayton Flyers get boost from Flyer Faithful in season-opening win

The transformation had come full circle now.

Malachi Smith stood in the underbelly of UD Arena after the Dayton Flyers had come from behind to defeat University of Illinois-Chicago, 64-54, in the season opener Tuesday night.

The Flyers freshman guard was talking quietly to family members and friends. A pair of teammates stood nearby and did the same.

The three UD players had turned back into Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Bruce Banner.

ExplorePHOTOS: Dayton vs. UIC

They’d left their alter egos up on Blackburn Court where, almost an hour earlier, they and their teammates had been Dayton versions of Superman, Batman and The Incredible Hulk.

“They turned us into superheroes,” Smith said with a smile. “They made me feel way better out there. They gave me more confidence on the floor.”

He was talking about the high-decibel, packed-to-the-rafters crowd of Flyers fans and what they’d done – once again.

“There was all that noise and all that energy all around us and we fed off it,” said freshman guard Koby Brea.

“The crowd made it impossible for us to lose.”

But that was not the way it had played out at the end of the first half.

UIC, lifted by four three-pointers of its own and UD’s seven errant field goal attempts and three missed free throws, went on a 19-2 run in the final 6 ½ minutes of the half and led 32-25 at the break

The sold-out crowd of 13,407 sat silent and stunned.

After such a long wait – 20 months of social distance separation between town and team because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its safety protocols – fans had been so excited for the return of UD basketball that all 17 home games had sold out before the season began.

But this was not the roaring renewal they all expected.

Nothing enlivened the crowd. Not the UD pep band and cheerleaders. Not the Cleveland Cavs Scream Team with their animated breakdances and spins and certainly not the play of the young Flyers team.

UD trailed 46-37 with 10 ½ minutes left in the game when Toumani Camara scored on a driving layup in the paint. That was followed by a Kobe Elvis 3-pointer and suddenly UD trailed by just four (46-42) and the entire crowd was on its feet cheering, chanting and screaming for more.

The wave of support so lifted the young Flyers players that they began to feel themselves change. They were Bruce Bannen morphing into The Incredible Hulk and Clark Kent stepping out of the phone booth with a cape and an S on his chest.

ExploreDissecting Dayton's game-changing 19-0 run

As the rattled Flames began missing one shot after another, the Dayton players all began to score. Mustapha Amzil made a free throw and though he missed the next one, R.J. Blakney got the rebound, was immediately fouled and he too made a foul shot.

That made the crowd roar more and when Flyers guard Elijah Weaver hit two free throws to tie the game, 46-46, the full-throated support hit crescendo force. Forty seconds later Weaver scored again to put Dayton in the lead.

Then 6-foot-10 freshman DaRon Holmes II, who they call Deuce, scored, as did Camara and Weaver again.

With four minutes left, Dayton now led, 56-46.

The Flames never fully recovered.

“I think everybody knows what happened – it’s the fans. Man!” Blakney said afterward. “The fans definitely helped us. (They) were so loud that we weren’t tired anymore. Whatever tiredness we had was gone. We played hard from that point.

“All the guys were saying it. It was electric!”

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Highlights: Dayton's 19-0 run vs. UIC on Nov. 9, 2021

Only two walk-on players on the Flyers roster – redshirt junior Christian Wilson and redshirt sophomore Drew Swerlein – actually played in games when UD Arena was rocking.

Wilson got in at the tail end of a two games in the 2018-19 season and then scored 11 points in that glorious 29-2 season that was cut short by COVID in March of 2020. Swerlein played five minutes in 2019-20.

Blakney said he was surprised by tsunami of noise and support he felt on the court. His only reference point had been watching UD games on TV: “It was louder than what I expected, definitely.”

Camara, who started two years at Georgia before transferring here this season, felt the same: “The energy was crazy. It really helped. I’ve never been to an environment like that.”

Not even during those SEC games at Georgia?

“Well, freshman year we had some solid crowds, but I can’t compare it to here. It’s a different feeling.”

He was out of the game for much of the run, but still felt the support: “You can feeI it even on the bench. It’s a crazy atmosphere.”

The flip side is what happened to UIC during that surge.

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“It affected them for sure,” Camara said. “When you’re away (from home), you’ve already got pressure on you and playing against fans that are loud like that, it’s double the pressure.”

The Flames scoring drought last 6 minutes and 46 seconds. They missed nine straight shots.

“They got deflated,” Smith said. “When we went on that run, we took their hearts out.”

Brea agreed: “They couldn’t make another shot after that.”

Camara led Dayton with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Holmes and Blakney both had nine points and Weaver had eight.

Zion Griffon led UIC with 17 points.

Afterward Flyers coach Anthony Grant was pleased that his team – the second youngest in Division I basketball this season – had learned some lessons in the heat of battle and regrouped to win.

Grant played in front of the Flyer Faithful himself in the mid-1980s and knows what the hometown crowd can do:

“We’re very grateful we were able to get this experience. It was awesome to have the Arena again full.

“After going through what we did last year, it was exciting to see everybody in the stands. The impact that the crowd had on the game tonight was huge. What makes this place special is that you’ve got this unbelievable fan base and it’s been that way for decades.”

UD Arena has been in the top 30 in national attendance in 41 of the 51 seasons it’s been open for full crowds. Last season’s sterile, surreal setting – when games had no fans or just a couple of hundred in masks – doesn’t count.

“It was a lot louder than I thought it would be,” said Brea, who played last year. “It was really incredible.”

“It boosted me a lot,” Camara said. “I know the fans have my back and now I’m gonna me sure I have theirs. It’s going to be awesome playing for them every night.”

After all, who wouldn’t want to turn into Superman and The Incredible Hulk for a couple of hours?

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Dayton fans in the student section cheer before a game against Illinois-Chicago on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Dayton fans in the student section cheer before a game against Illinois-Chicago on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

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Dayton fans in the student section cheer before a game against Illinois-Chicago on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

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