Dayton women top VCU for 14th straight win

Practice free throws aren’t as calm as game-on-the-line free throws. But with the outcome in doubt Sunday, the Dayton women made it look like practice while shooting 19 free throws in the final three minutes.

The Flyers shot them as calmly as they would in an afternoon practice with only themselves in the arena. They made 16 of those final 19 and held on to defeat VCU 72-67 for their 14th straight victory. The Flyers (19-7, 12-0 Atlantic 10) can clinch their third A-10 regular season title in four seasons with a win Wednesday at home against George Washington, a team they beat by 16 in January.

“We shot them well in practice yesterday,” Dayton coach Shauna Green said. “And really I had the confidence in them because in conference play in late games we’ve made free throws when we had to.”

This past Wednesday night Jayla Scaife made two free throws with eight seconds left to lift the Flyers to a 52-51 victory at Massachusetts. On Sunday the Flyers made 31 of 39 free throws to tie the season high they made in a 31-of-33 performance against East Carolina.

The Flyers led second-place VCU (14-11, 9-3) by 17 in the first half. And after a run sparked by Shakeela Fowler, the Flyers rebuilt their lead to 50-39 with 9:38 left. But the Rams kept coming and cut the lead to 56-54 with 3:26 to play. On Dayton’s next possession, Erin Whalen, who had made 3-of-5 3-pointers, was fouled on a 3-point attempt. She started the free-throw show by making two of three.

“We knew that was going to be a key for this game — getting to the free-throw line and then making it,” said Whalen, who scored a game-high 23 points.

From there the game turned into VCU trading baskets for free throws. Green replaced Whalen with Fowler, a point guard, to pair her with starting point guard Araion Bradshaw. Green wanted both ballhandlers in the game, and Fowler is the team’s best free-throw shooter at 84 percent. Fowler made the final four free throws, Bradshaw made eight and Scaife two in the final push.

“We talk about it all the time knowing free throws are going to win or lose you games,” Green said. “And you see that tonight because we definitely couldn’t get a stop at the other end when we needed one.”

VCU, which was the preseason favorite to win the A10 ahead of Dayton, kept scoring on drives to the basket. Whalen expects an emphasis in the next couple practices to be on winning “the two-dribble war” in an effort to keep opponents from getting to the basket. “No matter what you’ve got to win that,” Whalen said.

The Rams won their first seven A-10 games but have now lost three of five. They were desperate for a win and played like it in the second half, particularly in the final three minutes.

“We were there, but they made tough, physical moves, so you’ve got to give them credit,” Green said. “But then again we give our guys credit because we knew they were going to foul us.”

Fowler scored 13 points, Scaife 11 and Bradshaw 10 and combined to make 19 of 24 free throws. Whalen made 10 of 11.

Senior day for six Flyers was part of the motivation to win Sunday. VCU was another motivation. But tournament goals — first the A10 then the NCAA — are driving the Flyers. Green doesn’t have to remind her veteran team to be focused in practices or games.

“They’re really motivated,” she said. “They know what’s at stake. They knew what was at stake in this game. They’re a veteran team, so we can talk about it.”

The seniors won league titles in 2017 and 2018 and a conference tournament in 2018.

“I want them to get another one,” Green said, “so I know that they’ll be locked in and ready to go when it comes Wednesday night.”

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