Scoochie Smith and Kendall Pollard walked onto the court at UD Arena moments before the opening tip Saturday. Waving white towels in the air, they surprised a sellout crowd who hadn’t seen them on Tom Blackburn Court since the Dayton Flyers clinched the Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season championship on Senior Night in 2017.
Much has changed since then. Dayton has a new coach and almost an entirely new team. Smith still plays in Ohio — he said he always has at least a couple Dayton fans at his games — but with the Canton Charge in the NBA G League. Pollard, who will soon head to Canada to continue his pro career, is the dad of a young boy who’s his spitting image.
There's another big difference between 2017 and 2019. Dayton could consider itself at least the equal of VCU back then, but now the Rams have UD's number. VCU's 69-68 victory Saturday continued a trend that started last February with an 88-84 overtime win over the Flyers in Richmond.
Dayton has lost four straight games in the series. All the games have been decided by five points or fewer. The Rams have won the last three on go-ahead shots in the final minute. This time, it was Marcus Evans hitting the game-winner with six seconds to play, negating Dayton’s 22-point second-half comeback and a clutch shot by Obi Toppin nine seconds earlier.
Dayton forward Ryan Mikesell, who led all scorers with 22 points, couldn’t explain the difference between the Rams (19-6, 10-2) and the Flyers (16-9, 8-4) at the end of games.
“I really don’t know,” Mikesell said. “They’re a good team. They’re really tough — their coach and their players. You know that going into the game. They weren’t afraid of the environment. You could tell. They were ready to go at the start of the game. Hopefully, we see them again and get another chance at them.”
If that chance comes, it will come in Brooklyn, N.Y., at the Atlantic 10 tournament in a month. Until then, here are five takeaways from another classic game in a growing rivalry:
1. Winning shot: Evans, a junior guard who played his first two seasons at Rice, made the tie-breaking 3-pointer in front of Trey Landers with 33 seconds to play in a 76-71 victory against Dayton on Jan. 16 in Richmond. A month later, he beat Dwayne Cohill off the dribble at the 3-point line and made a tough shot over Josh Cunningham.
“Evans finds a way to make big plays at big times during the course of the game,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “He did it again tonight.”
The basket followed a missed free throw by Toppin, who failed to convert a 3-point play. VCU didn’t call timeout after the miss. It let Evans go to work.
“We knew what we were going to do,” said VCU coach Mike Rhoades, who coached Evans at Rice before getting the job at VCU in 2017. “We practice off missed and made free throws. We talk about time and score all the time. Why call a timeout and let Dayton change their defense and change their matchups.”
2. Last chances: Dayton took the same approach following the basket by Evans. It put the ball in the hands of Jordan Davis, who dribbled the length of the floor before having a shot blocked out of bounds with just under a second to play.
“I looked at the clock, and I think there were eight seconds when they scored,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said, “and rather than calling a timeout and letting them set their defense, our hope was we could get in transition and get something at the rim and try to score. If I felt like we didn’t have something at halfcourt, then we had one timeout left.”
4. Big comeback: A 3-pointer by Mikesell stopped VCU's run to start the second half. Still, Dayton faced a 55-34 deficit with 15 minutes to play. That's when the comeback began.
A 3-pointer by Jalen Crutcher started a 26-4 run. Crutcher punctuated the run with an alley-opp pass to Toppin, giving Dayton a 60-59 lead with 4:50 to play.
“Having a 22-point lead at Dayton is fool’s gold,” Rhoades said. “I kept saying it to myself, ‘No matter what, these guys are going to make a run.’”
5. Big picture: Dayton still finds itself in a good position to earn one of the top four seeds in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament and a bye into the quarterfinals but has work to do. It sits in fourth place, a half game ahead of Duquesne and Saint Louis (both 17-9, 8-5), and it plays both those teams in the final six games.