Virginia Commonwealth pulled out all the tricks Tuesday to find an extra edge against the Dayton Flyers, the highest-ranked team to ever visit the Siegel Center.
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Every seat had a black T-shirt with the words “I love VCU basketball” on the front. VCU almost always promotes the Dayton game as a blackout. Students filled their section early, though they were nicer to Dayton star Obi Toppin than the crowds at Massachusetts and across town at the University of Richmond.
Most importantly, VCU filled the arena with 7,637 fans. Other than Dayton, no one does that better in the A-10 than VCU. This was the 150th straight sellout.
None of it mattered. The No. 5 Flyers (24-2, 13-0) found a way — as they have done in 15 straight games — and beat VCU on its home court for the first time in five years. The 66-61 victory brought Dayton one step closer to an improbable dream: finishing 18-0 in Atlantic 10 Conference play.
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Five games remain, but only one is a big obstacle — the March 4 game at Rhode Island. Dayton will be heavy favorites in the other four games against Duquesne, George Mason, Davidson and George Washington. This is the sixth season the A-10 has played an 18-game schedule. No team has gone undefeated. No one has even won 17 games.
“We definitely think we can do it,” Dayton guard Dwayne Cohill said, “but right now we’re just taking it one game at a time. We’ve got Duquesne on Saturday. We’re not really looking ahead of that.”
The players and coaches may have a narrow focus, but this is a season deserving of high praise and that means recounting again and again just what this team has accomplished and what it can achieve if it keeps winning. Here’s a quick rundown:
1. Dayton has won 15 games in a row. It’s the sixth longest winning streak in school history. It’s the third time Dayton has won 15 or more games in a row in one season. The Flyers won 20 straight from January to March in 1952 and 16 straight from December 1957 to March 1958.
2. Dayton needs one more victory to move into a tie for eighth place for the longest winning streak in A-10 history. Three teams have won 16 straight, most recently Rhode Island in the 2017-18 season. Saint Joseph’s set the A-10 record for longest winning streak by winning its first 27 games in 2003-04.
3. With 24 victories, Dayton is tied for the 14th most in school history. If it doesn’t lose again in the regular season, it will set the school record, passing the 1951-52 team that finished 28-5.
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4. Dayton has already matched its A-10 win total of last season. It is two victories away from catching the 2016-17 team, which finished 15-3 in the conference.
5. Dayton will win its second outright A-10 championship even if it loses at Rhode Island as long as it wins its other four games. It leads Rhode Island (19-6, 11-2) by two games.
The list goes on. Dayton keeps rewriting the history book with every victory. This one ranks among the sweetest because the Flyers had lost close games at the Siegel Center the last three seasons (73-68, 88-84 in overtime and 76-71 last season) and also because coach Anthony Grant had never won at his old home as an opposing coach. He lost one game at VCU when he was with Alabama and lost there twice in his first two seasons at Dayton.
This goes down as one of Dayton’s best victories because it’s a Quadrant 1 win. Any victory on the road against a team ranked in the top 75 of the NCAA Evaluation Tool — VCU ranked 52nd — falls into that category.
“It was amazing to get a win here at VCU,” Dayton guard Jalen Crutcher said. “Coming in, we knew it was going to be a hostile crowd. We knew it was going to be a dogfight from the beginning to the end.”
Crutcher led the Flyers with 18 points on 4-of-9 shooting. He did a large part of his damage at the free-throw line, making 8 of 8. He has made 35 of his last 37 and would have broken Damon Goodwin’s 1984 record of 36 straight made free throws if not for two misses at Massachusetts on Saturday.
Dayton won the game in part by attacking the basket in the second half and getting to the line. It made 22 of 31 (71 percent). VCU took a similar approach but didn’t make enough free throws (13 of 22, 59.1 percent).
The Flyers opened the game with a 6-0 run on 3-pointers by Toppin and Ryan Mikesell. VCU then scored seven straight points. Dayton regained the lead on a basket by Crutcher with 14:03 to play in the half. The Flyers never trailed again but led by no more than nine points.
VCU cut Dayton’s lead to three points twice in the last four minutes. Each time the Flyers answered. Toppin, who had 12 points and four turnovers on an off night, got a jump shot to fall to 3:02 to play, and Cohill made 2 of 2 free throws with 21 seconds left.
“We knew coming in this would be a very loud and excited crowd, a great environment to play in,” Grant said. “We knew we could get a heck of a fight from a VCU team that had some adversity hit them the last couple games, but it’s a veteran crew that is very experienced and knows what they have to bring in these types of games. I thought they did that tonight. Proud of our guys that we were able to answer the bell every time we needed to. We got hit with a lot of different types of adversity, and our guys persevered. I thought tonight was about resiliency and toughness, and we found a way to win.”
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