Archdeacon: UD Arena sendoff for Camara is well-deserved

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

He was having an uphill battle — maybe with emotions, surely with his legs.

After Dayton’s 77-53 victory over LaSalle in the final home game of the season Tuesday night at UD Arena, Toumani Camara, the Flyers’ rugged fourth-year forward, made his way up the pitched ramp that leads from Blackburn Court to the team’s Donoher Center dressing room.

It likely would be the last time Camara made that trek after a UD game.

Although he could return next season due to the extra COVID year given all college players, by next fall he should have his degree and certainly would have fulfilled half of the goal he said he had when he left his Brussels, Belgium, home six years ago as a 16-year-old dreamer.

“My goal was to be able to play D-I college basketball and play professionally,” he said after exiting the Flyers locker room an hour after Tuesday night’s game. “My ultimate goal was to have a chance to put myself in the best position to play in the NBA one day.”

He had just played his 121st college game — 57 were at Georgia in his first two seasons and now 64 have been here — and Tuesday night was his 112th start.

With his 14-point, five-rebound effort against La Salle, he’s now scored 1,316 points in his career and grabbed 503 rebounds.

I’d say part one is handled, except that he’s not been on a team that’s played in an NCAA Tournament.

Before Tuesday’s game, UD held a Senior Night ceremony for him at center court. Because his mom couldn’t make it from Belgium, he had his teammates — “my second family” he called them — join him for the celebratory moment.

With 1:29 left in the game, Flyers coach Anthony Grant sent Zimi Nwokeji in for Camara, who came to the sideline on a wave of heartfelt applause from the sell-out crowd.

A sign was raised in the Red Scare student section that read “Thank You #2″ and included a hand-drawn heart.

Grant and Camara hugged and later, in a private moment, the 22-year-old team captain would talk about what the coach has meant to him:

“I love him…love him.

“I already knew about him and heard about him before I got here. I was looking forward to (playing for him.) He’s taught me so much about basketball. About real life.

“With everything he’s been through this year, he’s been able to stay true to his word and to what he does and he’s taught us this season. He’s just so strong.

“What he’s really about is family and the people he loves. He’s a man I have tremendous respect for.”

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Immediately after the game, Camara paid homage to the other part of UD basketball he loves.

He’d talk about the fans later, but before heading into the players’ tunnel, he stopped to sign autographs and take photos with kids and grownups alike who leaned over the railings to reach him.

The fans’ support, the brotherhood of teammates, the beloved coach and his staff — those are all reasons for which he said he came here. There was also the winning tradition.

Last year’s team went 24-11, but was knocked out of the A-10 Tournament semifinals by Richmond and had to settle for two games in the NIT.

After Friday night’s season finale at Saint Louis, the 20-10 Flyers will head to the A-10 Tournament in Brooklyn as a top-four seed, but need to win three games to get the tournament crown and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. After such high expectations and a No. 21 ranking to start the year, anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Making the NCAA Tournament is certainly doable if the Flyers play like they did down the stretch Tuesday night. It’s not if they perform like they did last Saturday when they were upset by George Mason.

With all that on the front burner, it’s understandable that Camara didn’t want to get into what lies ahead next season. And in the postgame press conference, he even juke-stepped away from any touchy-feely talk about the emotions of the night or any kind of nostalgia or looking back.

At least one person close to the program thinks he’ll return next season. I doubt it.

There might be unfinished business, but the team likely won’t look the same next year as it does now if a couple of the key players, either opt for the pros or transfer for more playing time or NIL exposure.

There’s also the risk of injury, which is something that has bedeviled this year’s team throughout the season, especially early on.

When Camara left the locker room Tuesday night, he had an ice bag taped to his right wrist. He said he landed on it when he took a charge in the game.

He tested the pro waters after last season, then pulled his name back out of the NBA pool. He will surely do the same this time and there’s also a more likely career back home in Europe, even as economies are weakened there by Russia’s yearlong attack on Ukraine.

Outside the dressing room, Camara talked about his unwillingness to embrace sentiment and reminiscence:

“I’m a really…how can I say this? …I’m really a feet-on-the-earth type of guy. I leave the good moments in the present and I’m just happy about it. Maybe tonight I’ll look back. Maybe I’ll be emotional about it…probably.”

With a little prodding, he did delve into some of the things he’s truly appreciated about his Flyers experience, beginning with the kinship among players.

“The coaching staff really does a good job recruiting guys that really fit in with each other,” he said. “That’s what creates the brotherhood and family environment and the coaches are really open to any type of conversation, whether it’s about basketball or real life situations.”

And having a sense of family has been important to him.

Hs mom, Anne LeDocte, raised him and his older brother since he was five. His sister died from a lung ailment when she was just three months old.

His dad is from Mali, but he said he only visited the West African country once, when he was two, and doesn’t really remember it.

To pay tribute to his family, he has four butterflies tattooed up his right leg. He said the top one represents his mom and the other three signify his late sister, his brother and himself.

“That way my family is always with me,” he has said.

His mom, he said, has made two trips to Dayton in his two years here and seen four games.

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

He said when she can, she watches his games on ESPN+s, though the six-hour time difference makes it tough for her. The usual 7 p.m, tipoffs mean it’s 1 a.m. in Belgium.

But from afar, she knows her son has comported himself well here.

On the basketball court, he’s made a name for himself as a workhorse. In his two seasons of high school ball at Chaminade Madonna College Prep in Hollywood, Fla., he averaged a double-double both years, won all-state honors and ended up with 30 Division I offers.

Dayton was one of the three schools he visited then, but chose Georgia and started 48 games. As a sophomore, he led the team in rebounding and blocked shots, was third in scoring and was a co-leader in double doubles in the SEC.

Last season he was Dayton’s co-MVP.

This year he’s played even better.

He leads the team in rebounds (8.7 per game) and steals, and is second in scoring (13.9 points per game) and blocked shots.

Grant praised him as being “an everyday player,” someone you can count on game after game. He commended him for the way he willingly took on the mantle of team leader the coaches first draped on his shoulders last season. Within a year, that challenge became a good fit.

That’s why the fans applauded him at the Tuesday.

They appreciate an honest — and skilled — blue collar effort game in and game out.

When he’d finished in the locker room, he stepped out had with the ice bag on his right wrist and three boxes of pizza in his left hand. That was for him and his teammates.

Guard Kobe Elvis had left before him and was waiting in the parking lot. He was Camara’s ride back to campus and was texting him, likely telling him to get a move on.

The pizzas were getting cold. The ice was beginning to drip and you had a feeling, once back at his apartment, some of Camara’s dispassion would melt, as well.

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