Coach Anthony Grant sat down to address his team in front of a dry-erase board in the visitor’s locker room at Belk Arena late Friday night.
The Dayton Flyers had just soothed some of the pain of a stunning 55-54 loss Tuesday at Fordham — not all of it because that one could haunt UD all season — by beating Davidson 89-78 in overtime in North Carolina.
In a video posted to Twitter by the official Dayton basketball account, Grant told the players, “I just want to sit here and tell you guys I’m proud of you, and I thank you guys for believing in each other, for believing in us, for believing in that uniform every day. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the growth we have to get as a team.”
Dayton (6-3, 2-2) evened its record in the Atlantic 10 Conference with 14 games to play. It has lost to two teams, La Salle and Fordham, expected to finish among the bottom four but beaten two middle-of-the-pack teams: George Mason and Davidson.
“That’s basketball,” Grant said in a postgame phone interview. “You’re going to have adversity. You’re going to go through stuff. We’ve got a group of guys who have great character. They care about each other. They care about the program and being the best version of themselves. They understand it’s going to be a process for us to figure it out and see where we can get better as a team. Tonight they competed well and showed their character and their grit. It was a heck of a college basketball game.”
Here’s are five reasons Dayton avoided its first back-to-back A-10 losses in three years and improved to 4-0 against Davidson in Grant’s four seasons:
1. Short memory: The Flyers won this game by forgetting the game-tying 3-pointer Davidson star Kellan Grady made with 3.3 seconds left to send it to overtime and also by learning from but not dwelling on the loss to Fordham.
“We were not supposed to lose that game,” Dayton guard Jalen Crutcher said. “We had to come out like it was a must-win game.”
“We were all kind of embarrassed,” Dayton guard Ibi Watson said. “We took it hard that we lost that. It was a game we thought we could win. The coaches did a great job of making adjustments. As players, we knew we had to execute and bring a different level of energy.”
This was Dayton’s second overtime game and the fourth to feature a game-tying 3-point attempt in the final seconds of the second half. Eastern Illinois, Mississippi State and Ole Miss all missed 3-pointers at the buzzer. Dayton missed what would have been a game-winning shot at the buzzer against Fordham and lost on a jump shot by Southern Methodist in the final seconds.
In short, every game has been dramatic. Dayton has been a lot of things this season, but it has never been boring. Grady, one of the best players in the A-10 since his freshman season, made his shot with 3.3 seconds to play. He scored 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting,
Crutcher had given Dayton a 72-69 lead on two free throws with 12 seconds to play. Dayton elected not to foul and prevent Davidson from getting a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer, and Grady made the 3-pointer over redshirt freshman forward Zimi Nwokeji.
“We talked about (fouling),” Grant said. “There were 12 seconds. He had (the ball) for a while. It’s tough to foul in that situation. I thought Zimi played as good a defense as you can. He’s a heck of a player, and he made a big-time shot.”
2. Star power: The duo of Crutcher and Watson brought energy, combining to play 86 minutes, and their best games. They combined for 53 points on 17-of-31 shooting while making 8 of 14 3-pointers. Crutcher scored a career-high 29 points. Watson finished with a season-high 24 points after scoring a season-low seven against Fordham.
In overtime, Crutcher had four points on back-to-back layups, the second of which gave Dayton a 78-76 lead with 1:58 to play.
On the next possession, Watson hit a 3-pointer to give Dayton an 81-76 lead with 1:22 to play. After a basket by Davidson, Crutcher assisted Nwokeji on a wide-open layup.
Watson, Koby Brea and Mustapha Amzil sealed the victory by combining to make 6 of 8 free throws in the final 30 seconds.
3. Team effort: As good as Crutcher and Watson were, the most important development may have been the chemistry Dayton showed on both sides of the ball. This was the first time it had junior guard Elijah Weaver on the court for two straight games. He earned his first start and had 11 points and a team-high seven assists in 36 minutes.
Nwokeji also played a big role for the second straight game, seeing a career-high 29 minutes of action and scoring a career-high nine points. He has played 79 minutes in the last three games after playing 20 minutes in the first six gamers.
4. Lineup adjustments: Moving Nwokeji to the center position and playing a small lineup at times proved to be an effective change for Dayton. The Flyers delivered their best offensive performance of the season: 56.9 percent shooting and 10 turnovers, none in the final 18 minutes.
“We played a lot of small ball,” Watson said. “Having Zimi as a bigger player, it spaced the floor a lot and allowed a lot more gaps. That was a great adjustment.”
“A traditional five man won’t be able to guard Zimi,” Crutcher said. “We had a lot of mismatches out on the court. That’s going to really work for us toward March. We’re just trying to build our chemistry. I know a lot of people have been talking about how we’ve been terrible, but we’ve had a new team almost every game.”
5. Consistent rotation: Dayton had the same starting lineup for the five non-conference games and has featured three different starting lineups in the first four A-10 games. The hope is the current group of nine players can improve as they play more together and that freshman guard R.J. Blakney, who has missed all four A-10 games with an injury, can also return. He has not returned to practice, Grant said, but is getting closer.
“I think that’s what you have to go through over the course of the year,” Grant said. “You have to figure out who you are as a team. We’ve had changes to our roster through injuries and other reasons. You try to figure out how you can be the best version of yourself.”