Arch: Flyers put scare into mighty Huskies

Geno Auriemma said it best:

“That is one of the best teams we’ve played in the last five years!”

The legendary University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach was talking about the Dayton Flyers, who put a scare in his two-time defending national champions Monday night like no other team had done in the first 20 minutes this season.

None.

For the first half of the Elite Eight game at the Times Union Center, the Flyers – 33 point underdogs at tipoff – went toe-to-toe with the best women’s college basketball team in the nation.

The Huskies came into the game riding a 34-game winning streak and had steamrolled its three other NCAA Tournament opponents by and average of 47.7 points.

“I got about 300 texts from people giving me suggestions about what to say to my team before this one,” UD coach Jim Jabir said. “Everything from, ‘They put their shirts on the same way’ to ‘They got the same body parts you got.’ I have 1,000 of them.

“But we have smart kids. They understand at the end of the day. They understand (UConn) has strengths and weaknesses and you exploit their weaknesses and hide the strengths.

“Our mantra all year has been ‘Do what you do.’ That’s all you can control. We went into Kentucky (two games ago) and we said, ‘We can’t sweat it. Do what you do.’ And that’s what we told them today.”

The Flyers – in the Elite Eight for the first timer in program history – embraced that message, especially the two senior starts, Ally Malott and Andrea Hoover, who have become the pillars of this program.

“We talked about it yesterday and again today before the game,” Malott said. “We said, ‘We can’t let the name on the front of their jerseys affect our mental approach.’ And I think we all did a great job of not backing down tonight. We went in with no fear and just battled all night.”

Shooting 70 percent from three-point range (7 for 10) and 51.4 percent in total, while also outrebounding the Huskies and getting more second-chance points, the Flyers led 44-43 at the half.

It was the first time all year that the Huskies had trailed at halftime and their crowd – which packed the downtown Albany arena – weren’t just silent, they were stunned.

UConn – trying to make its eighth straight trip to the Final Four – had beaten 15 opponents by 50 or more points this season and no one – except Stanford, which somehow edged them by two in overtime in the second game of the season – had come within more than 14 points of them.

Everyone wondered if they were watching a UD version of the Miracle on Ice or Buster Douglas sending Iron Mike Tyson to La-La Land.

“We knew they were getting yelled at a little bit at halftime,” Malott said. “We knew they’d come out firing and go on a run and we had to be ready for it.”

In the end, while the Flyers never broke, they did bend.

UConn went on a run and Dayton never recovered, finally losing, 91-70.

It still was the third closest anybody has gotten to the Huskies in what’s now a 35-game winning streak.

As Jabir took Hoover and then Malott out of the game with 1:15 left, the small knot of UD fans in the middle of all that UConn blue, stood and cheered.

The coach hugged his two seniors, who have combined for more than 3,000 career points and been an integral part of 102 victories and four straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

“We talk about leaving a legacy when we recruit kids and they have left an incredible legacy,” Jabir said.

A No. 7 seed in an Elite Eight field that has seven other No. 1 or 2 seeds, the Flyers, who finished 28-7, won the hearts not only of their hometown, but much of the college basketball world.

And the effects are already beginning to show.

“A lot of recruits are calling me,” Jabir said when pressed on the issue. “There seems to be a ton of kids who want to transfer and were hearing an inordinate number of those.

“It’s funny. A kid we’re recruiting, I called her three months ago and never got a response. Last night I got a phone call.”

While this tournament run may yield benefits in the future, no players that come to UD will mean any more than Malott and Hoover, both All Atlantic 10 Conference first teamers on the court and in the classroom.

Monday night five Flyers hit double figures. Malott led the way with 14 – all coming in the first half – while Hoover added 13. Saicha Grant-Allen had 12 , Kelly Austria, 11 and Jenna Burdette, 10.

“I’m absolutely thrilled for our team, “ UD athletics director Tim Wabler said afterward. “The whole tournament run and especially tonight, they showed what they were made of. I’m just really proud of them. Really proud.”

That was the prevailing sentiment, especially from Jabir after the game.

“This was fun,” he said. “I’m really proud of these guys. That’s the best team in the country, bar none, and for a long time we hung around. We competed, we weren’t intimidated.

“I couldn’t be more proud.

“This was a great day.”

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