A fan spilled popcorn onto Tom Blackburn Court in the first half Saturday at UD Arena. The person responsible for mopping the floor every time a sweaty player fell suddenly had a new job and pushed the popcorn to the end of the court at the urging of the officials.
As everyone knows, it’s hard to keep a floor clean, whether it’s a kitchen floor at home or a basketball court at a 53-year-old arena. On a similar note, it’s also hard to win basketball games. The Dayton Flyers have shown that time and time again this season, puzzling their fans by often playing their best in one game and their worst in the next.
Dayton coach Anthony Grant and forward DaRon Holmes II both said the same thing in the postgame press conference.
“They had a week to prepare for the game,” Grant said. “I think it showed.”
“They had a week to game plan for us,” Holmes said.
Sixth-place George Mason (17-12, 9-7) used the week break after a 70-66 victory against La Salle to prepare for its game at UD Arena, where no Atlantic 10 Conference team other than Virginia Commonwealth had won in more than two years. UD had a 20-game winning streak at home against the rest of the conference. George Mason entered the game with a 1-6 record at UD Arena against the Flyers.
Second-year George Mason coach Kim English, whose team beat Dayton 50-49 in Fairfax, Va., a year ago, and his staff devised the winning game plan.
“We wanted to move them around,” English said, “and get the ball inside. If they were going to play 1-on-1, like we did, we were fine with 1-on-1 matchups, and if they do double teams, spread it around and get good opportunities. We had to run some sets late to get guys open some shots, and they stepped up and made them. Players win games. Coaches lose them. Our guys did a great job today.”
No team had shot better than 50% against Dayton in 28 games. George Mason shot 58.1% (28 of 43) and had success inside the arc (18 of 30) and outside (7 of 13).
George Mason scored on nine straight possessions at one point in the final 10 minutes, overcoming a 51-45 deficit. Dayton kept pace with the Patriots until the final minute when Devon Cooper broke a tie with go-ahead basket with 43 seconds to play.
Starting with a free throw at the 10-minute mark in the second half, George Mason scored at least one point on 10 straight possessions. Dayton kept pace, for the most part, but quickly gave up a 51-45 lead.
“We scored enough, but we weren’t able to get the stops we needed,” Grant said. “They were able to get to the free-throw line. We had some breakdowns where they were able to get open for a couple of 3 to kind of break the momentum that we had. Down the stretch, the last eight to nine minutes of the game is where your defense has to be at its best, and we weren’t. Obviously, they had a lot to do with that. They did a really good job of putting their players in position to have success. We didn’t do a good enough job of stopping them.”
Credit: David Jablonski
Ronald Polite III led George Mason with 22 points. He made 6 of 11 field goals, including 2 of 3 3-pointers, and 8 of 8 free throws. Devon Cooper added 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Josh Oduro, an A-10 first-team selection last season, was limited to 23 minutes because of foul trouble but scored 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting.
Oduro fouled out with 2:20 to play and the game tied at 64. George Mason still found a way to win.
The game turned into a whistle festival at the end. George Mason made 11 of 12 free throws in the final seven minutes. Dayton made 7 of 12 in the same span. That was the biggest difference.
Dayton forward DaRon Holmes II scored a career-high 34 points but made 1 of 2 free throws with 88 seconds to play to tie the game and then missed two free throws with Dayton trailing by two with 22 seconds remaining.
The game also turned on two plays by Dayton point guard Malachi Smith. With the game tied at 66, he came up with a loose ball after a turnover and took it the other way on the fast break. Ronald Polite III stole the ball as Smith attempted to get off a shot near the rim. Then with Dayton trailing 68-66 with 10 seconds to play, Smith committed a turnover under the basket while attempting to wrap a pass around a defender and find Holmes in the paint.
All of this added up to the end of Dayton’s four-game losing streak and its outright regular-season championship hopes. VCU (22-7, 13-3) clinched a share of the championship with Dayton’s loss as the Flyers slipped into a three-way tie for second place with Saint Louis (19-10, 11-5) and Fordham (23-6, 11-5).
Dayton still needs to win one of its last two games — Tuesday at home against La Salle or Friday at Saint Louis — to clinch a top-four seed, though one loss by fifth-place Duquesne (19-9, 9-6) would also give the Flyers a top-four seed and a double bye in the A-10 tournament.
“To be able to potentially play only three games in the A-10 tournament, I think that’s huge for us,” Dayton forward Toumani Camara said, “so we’ve really got to lock in and move past this one.”
English experienced UD Arena when he was an assistant coach on Frank Haith’s staff at Tulsa. Michigan beat Tulsa 67-62 in the First Four at UD Arena in 2016.
“It’s one of my top-five favorite places to play in the country,” English said. “We lost a heartbreaker. Just great basketball fans and a great place to play.”
Now English has a good memory to go with his heartbreaking one. He improved to 2-0 against Dayton.
“Dayton is a team and a program we have so much respect for,” English said, “and it’s a program we want to emulate. They did it with young guys. That’s the way we’re building for the future. This was a very good college basketball game. Obviously, it’s disappointing for (Dayton) not to win it, but I’m very proud of our group.”
George Mason (17-12, 9-7) has won four straight games and is tied for sixth place with George Washington (15-14, 9-7). This victory puts it on the list of teams that could win the A-10 tournament. It should be a wide-open event.
“That’s the way it looks in this league,” English said. “I told our guys you want to be playing some your best basketball in February and March.”
La Salle at Dayton, 7 p.m., NBC Sports App; 1290, 95.7