With about 27 hours remaining in 2020, the year decided to throw one last sucker punch at the Dayton Flyers and the Flyer Faithful.
The year started off with 10 of the best weeks in program history. It took a nightmarish turn when the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the postseason. Recent months have seen the good news return in the form of strong recruiting and a solid performance in five non-conference games.
What no one saw coming in the last game of the calendar year was a loss to La Salle, a team that hadn’t won at UD Arena since 1999, a team that was picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the Atlantic 10 Conference preseason poll, a team that had won two games against Division I opponents this season.
True to form, though, 2020 proved once again everyone should expect the worst. Dayton lost 67-65 to the Explorers on Wednesday when Indiana transfer Clifton Moore, who sat out last season after playing his first two seasons for former UD coach Archie Miller, hit a jump shot with 2.5 seconds remaining.
“We’ve just got to take this one on the chin and worry about the next game,” Dayton guard Jalen Crutcher said.
The Flyers (4-2, 0-1), who play George Mason (5-2, 1-0) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in their second A-10 game, lost their league opener one season after finishing 18-0. Their 20-game A-10 winning streak, the fourth longest in league history, ended when the Flyers couldn’t get a shot off in the final seconds.
Mustafa Amzil, a 6-foot-10 freshman forward from Finland who started and led Dayton with 22 points in his first college game, turned the ball over on the inbounds pass.
La Salle (4-5, 1-1) snapped a 14-game losing streak at UD Arena. It last won in Dayton on Feb. 27, 1999. That 88-74 loss came on Senior Day for Josh Postorino and Coby Turner, and it was Dayton’s 11th loss in 14 games. It was a minor blemish on a disappointing 11-17 season.
This loss is a major setback for a team with dreams of competing for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. La Salle ranks 163rd in the Ken Pomeroy ratings.
Dayton fell from 59th to 65th. It gets 17 more chances in the A-10 to rebuild its resume, but this loss will be a hard one to shake, especially considering Dayton had few chances in the non-conference season to impress the selection committee.
The Flyers played without Chase Johnson, who announced about two hours before the game he was leaving the program to focus on health issues and school, and R.J. Blakney and Elijah Weaver, who suffered injuries in practice earlier in the week.
Dayton had eight scholarship players available. Two of those, Amzil and freshman guard Koby Brea, had never played in a college game. One of the eight, Zimi Nwokeji, has not scored in limited action this season. The Flyers weren’t using any of that as an excuse.
“That’s basketball,” coach Anthony Grant said. “We’re going to go with the guys who are available. I felt like the guys we had available tonight, had we done what we’re capable of doing, were more than capable of getting the job done tonight. For whatever reason, we did not do what we were capable of doing, and we got caught.”
The loss overshadowed the best debut performance by a Flyer in 14 years. Amzil, who joined the team Dec. 19 and started practicing Sunday, took Johnson’s place in the starting lineup and scored 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting in 36 minutes. It was the most points scored by a Dayton player in his first game since Marcus Johnson scored 23 against Austin Peay on Nov. 11, 2006.
Amzil scored Dayton’s last seven points of the first half as it took a 30-25 halftime lead and then its first 10 points in the second half.
La Salle overcame early struggles — it trailed 15-2 at the 10:34 mark in the first half — by doing what it does best: make 3-pointers. The Explorers entered the game with the third-best 3-point percentage (38.7) in the league. After missing their first seven against Dayton, they made 9 of 19, including 6 of 12 in the second half.
Five different players made 3-pointers for La Salle, though it was Moore’s 2-point jump shot that won the game. Dayton’s Jordy Tshimanga fell down while trying to guard Moore, leaving him wide open.
“I thought the story was told by what we didn’t do in the second half,” Grant said. “Defensively, toward the end of the first half and throughout the second half, their effort was better than ours. Their resolve, their grit was better than ours. They beat us to 50-50 balls. The numbers speak for themselves in the second half. Our (defensive efficiency rating) wasn’t anywhere near where it needs to be. They got us at the 3-point line. They got us at the rim. They got us on second shots. Give them credit. They understood the effort and focus they needed to have in the league. It’s a lesson for us. We’ve got to come out every single day with every guy and be willing to do the things that are required every day, and we did not get that today consistently enough across the board.”
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