Maybe the cutest story in college basketball — Dayton Flyers star Josh Cunningham dating WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson — delivered a fun new chapter Tuesday.
With Wilson watching from the stands, as she has often this season, Cunningham overcame his struggles at the free-throw line to make 9 of 10. The only miss came with 2.2 seconds to play in a tie game. The last make came moments later as the redshirt senior forward Cunningham clinched a 74-73 victory against Davidson at Belk Arena.
“Well done Cunningham!” Wilson wrote after the game on Twitter.
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Cunningham’s 893rd point in a Dayton uniform may go down as his most important because it improves Dayton’s chances of earning a top-four seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament. To him, though, it was just another free throw, one of 390 he has attempted in a career that started at Bradley in 2014 and has spanned five seasons.
“I’ve been practicing and working on my free throws all season,” Cunningham said. “It’s just a regular routine. It’s really nothing big. It was good to make the free throw win a game, but it was just another free throw. I shot all free throws tonight with the same mindset. Just got to make it and take my time.”
That free throw proved the difference in Dayton’s biggest victory of the season. The Flyers lost a 19-point lead but won in the final seconds three days after overcoming a 22-point deficit only to lose 69-68 in the final seconds to Virginia Commonwealth. Here are five takeaways from Dayton’s 17th win:
1. Best game: Considering the opponent and the location, this has to go down as Cunningham’s best game of the season. He made 6 of 6 shots from the field and scored 21 points in 26 minutes. It was his first 20-point game since Dayton’s A-10 opener against Richmond on Jan. 6.
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Cunningham’s shooting 61.3 percent at the free-throw line. This was his most productive night at the line since he made 13 of 17 against Georgia State last season.
“I thought Josh dominated the game today,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said, “and it was great to see him as a senior be in that situation where he was able to win the game, and he stepped up and made the play to win it.”
2. Key play: Davidson tied the game at 73-73 on a wide-open layup by Jon Axel Gudmundsson with 11 seconds to play. The Flyers decided not to call timeout and put the ball in point guard Jalen Crutcher’s hands.
Crutcher split two Davidson defenders as he drove to the basket and threw a no-look pass to Cunningham under the basket. Davidson’s Kellan Grady fouled Cunningham hard to prevent a layup.
“It was a great pass,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t even know he saw me. I was about to sneak around to the other side to see if he could see me over there, but he found me. He has great vision. He’s a great point guard.”
3. The comeback: Dayton dominated the first half, taking a 37-25 lead into halftime, and then played some of its best offense of the season in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Everything was working for the Flyers even as Gudmundsson took over on the other end, scoring 21 of his 26 points in the second half.
Dayton extended its lead to 66-43 with 9:38 to go on Obi Toppin’s 65th dunk of the season, and then the Davidson comeback began. A dunk by Grady with 71 seconds remaining capped a 25-8 run.
Even after the go-ahead free throw by Cunningham, the Wildcats had one last shot. KiShawn Pritchett threw a bullet of a pass nearly the length of the court — two Dayton defenders almost got a hand on it as it sailed past — to Grady, who missed a 3-pointer over Jordan Davis at the buzzer.
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“Our guys just fought and fought and fought,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. “It’s just disappointing we came up short. This is Atlantic 10 basketball. This is a terrific Dayton team. I thought we matched them blow for blow in the second half. Just a tough way to finish the game. I thought Kellan had a great look. A very difficult shot. KiShawn made an incredible pass. I think this is the third (loss) in the A-10 where we’re one basket away.”
4. Rare feat: Davidson suffered its first loss at home this season after 12 victories. This was only its second loss at home in A-10 play in the last two seasons and the first in more than a year. Richmond beat Davidson 66-63 at Belk Arena last January.
“I thought we completely dominated the game for 32 or 33 minutes,” Grant said. “Like any good team, Davidson made a heck of a run, but our guys stepped up and made plays to preserve the win.”
5. Big picture: With five games left in the regular season, Dayton (17-8, 9-4) is tied with George Mason (15-11, 9-4) for third place. The Patriots own the tiebreaker over Dayton because they beat the Flyers 67-63 in January, so Dayton would own the No. 4 seed if the season ended now.
Dayton’s victory puts VCU (20-6, 11-2) in first place. Davidson (19-7, 10-3) slipped to second place. The Flyers improved to 5-2 in A-10 road games.
“Getting this win is really big for us,” Toppin said. “We heard they were 12-0 at home, and we came in with the mindset that we had to break that record, and we did so tonight.”