Jablonski: Biggest win of Archie Miller era

Flyers stun No. 17 Saint Louis, take step toward NCAA bid

Fate smiled on the Billikens in one way. A loss by Saint Joseph’s to George Washington gave Saint Louis a share of its second straight title and the No. 1 seed of the tournament. But this was no happy night for a city looking forward to March Madness.

The youthful Flyers, with freshmen and sophomores scoring more than half the points, shocked No. 17 Saint Louis 72-67, recording their first-ever victory over a ranked Atlantic 10 conference opponent after 10 straight losses. That streak goes even farther back when you count four games in the Great Midwest and a game in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference.

Based on that fact alone, this was an improbable victory that went against every script. Surely no one in the Billiken locker room thought they would lose this game, even though they’d lost their last two games to Duquesne and Virginia Commonwealth — thus the scissors.

All the Flyers knew about the scissors. If they needed any extra motivation, they had it because of those scissors.

“You never want to be anybody’s piñata,” junior guard Jordan Sibert said. “To avoid it, you go out there and play as hard as you can, and you try to get the best result. Tonight the W was the result.”

After the victory, assistant coach Kevin Kuwik retweeted Hansgen’s photo and wrote, “No greater motivation than showing up at shoot-around, and they already have the ladder and scissors ready to go.”

If Dayton (21-9, 9-6) had bulletin-board material, it still had to do work on the scoreboard to win its eighth game in the last nine.

The Flyers trailed for the first 29 minutes and finally tied the game at 50 on a jump shot by Devin Oliver with 10:46 to go, only to see Saint Louis regain the lead seconds later on a 3-pointer by Mike McCall Jr. The Flyers fell behind 57-52 on a tip-in by Dwayne Evans with 7:47 to go.

At that point, anyone who has watched UD all season would have thought, “Win or lose, this is their grittiest effort of the season.” Lots of things had gone wrong for the Flyers — they fell behind 7-0, for instance, and Devin Oliver missed his first five shots — but they had refused to go away.

No one could foresee at that moment that the Flyers would begin their winning run, a 16-2 spurt in a four-minute span that would carry them to their second victory in a row over a top-20 RPI team. Jalen Robinson got it going with his first 3-pointer of the game and only his third of the season. Then Kendall Pollard assisted Kyle Davis on a layup, two freshmen playing big in a big moment. It was tied at 57.

A 3-pointer by Sibert, another 3 from Robinson, who had now doubled his season total, a jumper by Sibert and then a 3-point play by Oliver extended the run to the 3:36 mark. Against all odds, the Flyers led 68-59 and had the Billikens on the ropes.

“It was just a great team effort,” Robinson said. “We just stuck with our system. When you stick with your system and play as a team, things work out for the best. Everybody is going to have your moment. The young guys stepped up: Scooch, Kyle and Kendall. Without them, we couldn’t have gotten the win.”

Saint Louis didn’t go away. In desperation mode, they clawed their way back in no time at all. The Billikens turned up the pressure, and the Flyers could barely get off a pass for a stretch, much less a shot.

Dayton committed three turnovers in the final three minutes and scored its remaining four points at the free-throw line. Saint Louis cut the deficit to 68-67 with 33 seconds left on a layup by Evans. Then Khari Price hit two free throws. The Billikens missed three straight shots on their next possession before turning it over, and Jordan Sibert sealed the victory with two free throws with one second left.

Sibert led the Flyers with 14 points. Dyshawn Pierre scored 11. Robinson had 10. Pollard, who had three total points in the previous 11 games, scored nine. Oliver scored nine after his slow start. Smith scored six.

The Flyers moved a half game ahead of Richmond (18-11, 8-6), who they host at 7 p.m. Saturday in the regular-season finale. Both the teams just ahead of UD, Massachusetts and George Washington won to improve to 10-5, so the Flyers are still a game back of those two teams and in sixth place.

The victory does wonders for UD’s NCAA tournament resume. One more victory at home Saturday and at least one in the tournament should seal the deal for the Flyers and send them to the big dance.

“We’re not worried about the bubble,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said. “The great thing about this team is we’ve eliminated all the noise. We had to do that back in January when nobody liked us, when we weren’t playing well. It’s been a constant, everyday fight for ourselves, to just stay together, to be about the right things. We have high character guys.

“One through 12, each guy showed you tonight they’re all about the right things. We’ve been about that for a long time. They can talk about bubbles and tournaments all they want, but until that Sunday, nobody knows what’s really going on. We’re going to focus in on really trying to honor our seniors over the next 48 hours in practice. We’ve got to be ready to go on Saturday.”

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