Anthony Grant will remember the character and the fight of his team during a 22-point comeback most of all, but in the end, the Dayton Flyers suffered a familiar loss to Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday.
Four straight times, the Flyers have fought the Rams to the final minutes. Four straight times in the last two seasons, they have lost winnable games. This defeat, a 69-68 decision in front of a sold-out crowd waving white pom-poms at UD Arena, may hurt more than any because it puts a serious dent in Dayton's dreams of contending for the Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season championship.
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Marcus Evans, who hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute in January to beat the Flyers in Richmond, played the role of Dayton-killer again, scoring the winning basket on a layup with six seconds to play.
"To be down 22 with 18 minutes to play, the challenge was to be able to stay together and be able to continue to fight and continue to believe," Grant said, "and we did that in great fashion. Unfortunately, we weren't able to make enough plays at the end of the game, but it wasn't for a lack of effort or belief or togetherness."
Playing with seven scholarship players with Trey Landers sidelined with a shoulder injury, Dayton (16-9, 8-4) almost pulled off a victory that would have moved it into a second-place tie with Virginia Commonwealth (19-6, 10-2) and George Mason (15-10, 9-3). Instead, Dayton finds itself in fourth place heading into a game Tuesday at first-place Davidson (19-6, 10-2).
Dayton trailed 41-29 at halftime and then gave up 10 straight points to start the second half. It got back in the game with a 26-4 run from the 15:00 mark to the 4:50 mark, taking a 60-59 lead on an alley-oop pass from Jalen Crutcher to Obi Toppin.
The Flyers took a 68-67 lead on a basket by Toppin with 15 seconds to play. He was fouled on the shot but missed the free throw. VCU didn’t call timeout and gave the ball to Evans, who split Dwayne Cohill and Josh Cunningham to score in traffic at the rim.
"We knew what we were going to do," VCU coach Mike Rhoades said. "Why call a timeout and let Dayton change its defense and change its matchup."
Dayton’s Jordan Davis had a layup blocked with just under a second to play. The Flyers got the ball out of bounds with 0.7 seconds left but were unable to get off a shot at the end.
Ryan Mikesell led Dayton with 22 points. Toppin scored 15. Jalen Crutcher had 13. Cunningham added 10.
De'Riante Jenkins scored 19 for the Rams. Isaac Vann had 14. Evans scored half of his 12 points in the last four minutes.
The Flyers trailed Virginia Commonwealth by as many as 16 points in the first half and faced a 41-29 halftime deficit.
Dayton led 12-10 after a dunk by Toppin at the 15:02 mark and then gave up 16 straight points in the next six minutes. VCU took its largest lead, 33-17, at the 7:08 mark.
Dayton rallied with an 11-3 run to get as close as eight points. De’Riante Jenkins made a 3-pointer with 28 seconds to play to push VCU’s lead back into double digits.
The Rams made 6 of 13 3-pointers. Dayton made 2 of 6. The Flyers committed 11 turnovers. VCU had five.
Mikesell led all scorers with 13 points. Jenkins scored 11 for VCU.
Eleven VCU players saw at least three minutes of action in the first half. Dayton has only seven scholarship players available. All of them saw at least five minutes of action.