If not for a buzzer-beater by Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday, the Dayton Flyers would have woken up Thursday tied with three other teams for first place in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
Zeb Jackson made a jump shot from just inside the 3-point line as time expired to lift VCU (19-7, 10-3) to a 55-54 victory at Rhode Island. VCU rallied from a 13-point deficit in the second half.
Dayton (17-9, 9-4) lost to Rhode Island on the same court, 75-70 on Jan. 25. That’s one reason it is tied with Saint Louis (17-9, 9-4) and Fordham (21-5, 9-4) for second place, one game behind VCU, with five games to play.
Now after beating what were the top two teams in the standings at the time, VCU and Saint Louis, in back-to-back games, Dayton will play the bottom two teams on the road in the next five days: Loyola Chicago (9-16, 3-10) at 7 p.m. Friday; and Massachusetts (13-13, 4-10) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The game at Gentile Arena in Chicago on Friday will be Dayton’s first since a 70-56 victory last Friday against Saint Louis at UD Arena.
“We got an opportunity this week to string some practices together and fine tune some things as we hit the last homestretch here for regular season,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said Monday on WHIO Radio’s Flyer Insider show. “Going on the road here at Loyola, we played a really tough game against them the first time we played them. The game went to overtime. So we expect a very physical, hard-fought game. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got a good week of preparation.”
In the first game Jan. 31 at UD Arena, Dayton watched an eight-point lead slip away in the first half and then had to climb out of its own eight-point hole in the second half. It took a 72-66 lead in the final minute only to have Loyola tie the game with two late 3-pointers. Braden Norris made one with 41 seconds to play. Then Philip Alston tied the game on a 3-pointer in the final seconds.
Dayton escaped with an 85-81 victory when Malachi Smith and DaRon Holmes II scored on back-to-back possessions to give Dayton a four-point lead in overtime.
Loyola made 13 of 25 3-pointers against Dayton. That’s its second-best performance of the season and its best in A-10 play. Since that game, it has made 33 of 91 (36.3%) in four games.
In its last game Tuesday, Loyola nearly blew a 61-43 lead in the last nine minutes at UMass. The Minutemen rallied with a 14-0 run in a seven-minute stretch. Loyola secured a 64-62 victory when Alston blocked a shot in the final seconds. Loyola scored three points, all at the free-throw line, in the last nine minutes.
Dayton will play at Joseph J. Gentile Arena for the first time Friday. Loyola is 6-5 at home. The arena seats 4,486 fans, which makes it the 250th largest in Division I, according to KenPom.com. Loyola ranks ninth in the A-10 in attendance (3,344).
With the number of UD grads in Chicago, the Dayton-Loyola game sold out fast when single-game tickets went on sale in the fall.
Dayton beat Wyoming 66-49 in Chicago at the United Center on Dec. 17. It brings a two-game winning streak into this game and has won four of its last five. The Flyers may be in second place but looked like the team to beat in the A-10 with their performances against VCU and Saint Louis.
“We did a great job of just sticking to the game plan and playing for each other,” said forward Toumani Camara, who scored 43 points in the two games and was named A-10 Player of the Week. “I think the most important thing that we have to do is just play a good 40 minutes and be consistent in both halves and have the same energy throughout the whole game.”
Dayton at Loyola Chicago, 7 p.m., ESPN2, 1290, 95.7