The Dayton Flyers had some time to bask in their ESPN Events Invitational championship Sunday night. Their flight was delayed, so the players sat in the stands watching the final game of the tournament between Alabama and Miami or visited with their family members.
By early Monday morning, the team’s charter flight had arrived back in Dayton. Dayton’s student managers documented the journey of the championship trophy all night:
The trophy is a rare prize for Dayton, which had not won a tournament of any kind since 2011. Until beating Belmont 63-61 on Sunday night, it had lost in eight straight November tournaments, nine straight Atlantic 10 Conference tournaments and four NCAA tournaments.
This was only the fourth time since winning the Old Spice Classic 10 years ago, Dayton had reached the championship game of a tournament. It lost in two A-10 championship games: 2011 to Richmond; and 2015 to VCU. It lost to Xavier in the Advocare Invitational, which was played on the same court as the Old Spice Classic and ESPN Events Invitational, in 2015.
Getting to the championship was a well-earned achievement considering Dayton had to break a three-game losing streak by beating the Miami Hurricanes in the first round and then had to beat a top-four team for the first time since 1984 in the semifinals. The second victory, against the No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks, included one of the great moments in Dayton history: a pure buzzer-beater by Mustapha Amzil, whose high-arcing shot hit the rim and the backboard before falling through the net on Friday.
All in all, the first two weeks of the season couldn’t have gone any worse for Dayton, and the third week couldn’t have gone any better.
“This is really just the beginning of something special,” Dayton guard Koby Brea said. “We all know what we’re capable of doing, and we just had to prove it to everyone.”
Fans pictured a 1-6 start for the Flyers after they headed to Florida with three straight losses at home to UMass Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay. Instead, they’re 4-3 with two games against the lowest-ranked teams on their schedule, Alabama State and Northern Illinois, at UD Arena this week. The three games that follow — against Southern Methodist, Virginia Tech and Mississippi — will give Dayton more chances to bury the memories of the 1-3 start.
“I never wavered with our team,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “I knew we had a young group to start the season. I knew we’d have to go through some experiences. I’d have to learn them, they’d have to learn me, we’d have to become a team. You never want to have to do that the way we did, with three consecutive losses. We’re seven games into this thing, and I think we’re still getting better. I think we’re still growing as a team. I never get too high, I never get too low. I try to live in reality, and the reality is that we’ve got a really good group of guys in that locker room that come to work every single day.”
There were many bright spots in Florida. Here were a few:
• Dayton didn’t let a single opponent shoot better than 28 percent from 3-point range.
• Dayton won the rebounding battle against each opponent by a combined margin of 16.
• Two Dayton freshmen made the all-tournament team: Malachi Smith, who was named MVP, and DaRon Holmes II. Smith averaged 11.3 points and 6.3 assists in the three games.
Holmes II averaged 14 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks. He blocked six shots against Belmont. That’s the second time he’s reached that number this season. He’s the first player in school history to block six shots in a game twice in a career, much less in one season.
• Dayton showed its depth in the tournament by playing 11 of its 13 scholarship players. Everyone who saw action contributed. Moulaye Sissoko had four points and four rebounds in eight minutes against Kansas.
There’s still an argument Dayton hasn’t played its best game, too, because turnovers continue to be an issue. It had 16 turnovers against Miami, 20 against Kansas and 13 against Belmont.
“For half of our team, it’s the first seven games of their career,” Grant said. “We’ve got to understand what it is. It’s seven games in. This is great to win a championship. But we’ve still got to get better, there’s a lot of basketball left to play.”
Alabama State at Dayton, 7 p.m., ESPN+, 1290, 95.7