Dayton loses the ‘head of the snake’ and fades late in A-10 tournament loss to Richmond

Flyers likely headed to the NIT for the third time last five seasons

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The basketball gods dealt the Dayton Flyers another cruel blow.

Two years after the pandemic ended Dayton’s NCAA tournament dreams, an injury may have prevented the Flyers from playing in March Madness for the first time since 2017. There’s no guarantee No. 2 seed Dayton would have beaten Richmond with Malachi Smith for the whole game on Saturday or knocked off No. 1 seed Davidson on Sunday, but they stood little chance without their freshman point guard, who injured his ankle on the final play of the first half and did not return to the game.

No. 6 seed Richmond rallied from a 15-point deficit to beat Dayton 68-64 in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament at Capital One Arena, likely ending Dayton’s slim chances of earning a NCAA at-large berth and extending an A-10 tournament championship drought that has seen UD fail to capture the tournament trophy every year since 2003.

After the game, Dayton coach Anthony Grant and forwards DaRon Holmes II and Toumani Camara talked at the postgame press conference about the loss of the game but also the loss of their spark plug, an A-10 all-rookie selection who was one of Dayton’s breakout stars this season.

“He’s disappointed,” Grant said. “Certainly, it’s a big loss.”

“It affected us a lot,” Camara said. “He’s a big piece of the team.”

“He’s the head of the snake,” Holmes said.

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Smith had seven points, two assists and no turnovers in just under 18 minutes in the first half. Dayton led 33-25 when he suffered the injury. He appeared to turn quickly and turn the ankle.

Smith’s teammates attended to him after the final seconds of the half ticked away, and Grant walked out to check on him. Then Smith limped for a few steps before putting his arm around trainer Mike Mulcahey’s shoulder and being helped to the locker room.

Smith was not on the bench at the start of the second half but returned to the bench several minutes into the second half on crutches with his ankle wrapped. He then left the bench later in the half and spent the rest of the game in the locker room.

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Dayton played inspired basketball without Smith early in the second half, going on a 9-2 run to take a 42-27 lead.

“We were saying, ‘Let’s do it for him,’” guard Koby Brea said.

That worked for a while as Kobe Elvis ran the point guard. Then Richmond, which missed all eight of its 3-point attempts in the first half, started finding the touch. It made 4 of 8 3-pointers in the second half.

Dayton, on the other hand, could not get many outside shots to fall in the second half. It made 3 of 8 3-pointers in the second half and 2 of 12 in the second. Camara scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to lead the Flyers. Holmes had 15. Brea scored 10.

Although Dayton shot better overall from the field (51.9% to 35.7%) than Richmond, the Flyers committed 12 turnovers to Richmond’s five. The Spiders scored 12 points off those turnovers.

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Richmond turned up the pressure in the second half after the injury to Smith. Coach Chris Mooney said he planned to do that anyway before he knew Smith wouldn’t return.

“It has been something that’s really been a catalyst for us,” Mooney said. “We didn’t force a ton of turnovers, but we certainly got the game more up and down to our liking.”

With an 11-0 run, Richmond cut the deficit to 52-50 with 6:21 to play. Dayton clung to the lead for three minutes longer. Then the Spiders tied the game at 57-57 on a basket by Grant Golden with 3:52 to play and took the lead at the 3:29 mark when Tyler Burton made 1 of 2 free throws. The big shot came at the 1:40 mark: a tie-breaking 3-pointer by Matt Grace.

Richmond led the rest of the way and advanced to the A-10 championship game for the first time since 2011 when it beat Dayton in the final. The Spiders will play No. 1 seed Davidson at 1 p.m. Sunday. Davidson appears safe in the at-large discussion. Richmond would steal a bid from someone on the bubble if it upsets the Wildcats.

Dayton (23-10) may not be even close enough to the bubble to worry about the Selection Show. Most NCAA tournament experts predicted the Flyers would at the very least have to reach the A-10 championship to have a chance. If the Flyers don’t hear their name called on CBS on Sunday evening, they will play in the NIT for the third time in Grant’s five seasons.

Grant had no interest in making a pitch to the selection committee for his team’s resume after the game.

“It’s beyond my control,” Grant said. “They have a job to do, and I’ll let them do it.”

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