KINGSTON, R.I. — There’s a meme used often these days in the sports world with an image of a pitbull showing up in an X-ray of a chest.
“Got That Dog In Him is a catchphrase meant to describe a person, usually an athlete, who is mentally tough and able to perform in important situations,” KnowYourMeme.com explains. “The term spread primarily in the sports world through much of the 2010s before other fandoms began picking up the phrase in the early 2020s.”
Point guard Malachi Smith knows the Dayton Flyers, who suffered their third loss in four games Wednesday, falling 75-70 at Rhode Island, need to find mental toughness.
“We need to be that dog team we were last year,” he said.
Dayton beat Rhode Island twice with most of the same personnel it had Wednesday. It beat George Washington twice last season by a total of 51 points and then lost 76-69 on Saturday in Washington, D.C. The Flyers won 24 games last season, finished 14-4 in the Atlantic 10 Conference and just missed out on playing in the NCAA tournament.
This Dayton seems far from approaching that level of success, which was still short of the goals the program sets for itself every season, namely playing well enough to earn a NCAA tournament at-large berth. The Flyers (13-8, 5-3) will have to win three or four games in Brooklyn, N.Y., to play in the tournament.
Right now, Dayton’s only hope is to find itself and get on a roll when the games count the most, and it’s hard to imagine that happening right now. That’s how far and fast the team has fallen in the last two weeks after winning seven games in a row by double digits.
The loss to Rhode Island, led by former Dayton coach Archie Miller, is the latest blow to the team’s ego and aspirations.
“Now we’re in that place where we have to fight our way out,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “No matter who we play, the next opponent isn’t feeling sorry for us. We’ve got to figure out what type of fight that we have, what type of togetherness we have. Are we playing for each other? Are we playing for the name on the front of the jersey? Are we playing to fight our way out of the adversity that we’ve faced? There’s a lot of season, a lot of opportunities left in front of us. It’s a choice that we have to make. How do we get ourselves out of this right now? And what do we have to do? I have to figure it out. As a coach, as a leader, I have to try to help them figure it out. But we also need them to step up and hold themselves accountable and hold each other accountable, to say, ‘This is what we have to do, and this is how we have to do it. The really good teams take ownership of it. So we’ll see.”
One of the most-anticipated Dayton seasons in recent memory now includes a growing list of lowlights:
• The first last-place finish in a November tournament, the Battle 4 Atlantis, in 30 years.
• The most lopsided loss in seven years, a 77-49 defeat at Virginia Tech on Dec. 7.
• One of the worst late-game collapses ever seen at Dayton in a 63-62 loss to Virginia Commonwealth on Jan. 13 at UD Arena.
This latest loss belongs on that list. Rhode Island (7-13, 3-5) had lost three straight games. It had not beaten anyone in the top 150 of the Ken Pomeroy ratings. Then it overcame a 21-11 deficit with a 32-8 run in a 12-minute span. Dayton made several runs, getting as close as three points with 50 seconds to play, but never had the ball with a chance to tie the game.
Dayton played the game without starting guard R.J. Blakney, who was sidelined with a lower-body injury. Grant said he doesn’t think it’s a serious injury.
“He didn’t think he could go today,” Grant said.
Miller thought Dayton missed Blakney’s defense. The Rams didn’t shoot well from 3-point range, making 6 of 22 (27.3%) but made 17 of 28 2-point field goals (60.7%), their second-best percentage of the season.
Ishmael Leggett, who scored 25 points, and Brayon Freeman, who scored 21, made timely shots again and again in the second half as Dayton tried to rally from a 13-point deficit. Rhode Island did most of its damage at the free-throw line, making 23 of 26.
On offense, Dayton got 19 points from DaRon Holmes II, who made 8 of 11 field goals, and 14 points from Kobe Elvis, who made 4 of 5 3-pointers in his second game back from a knee injury.
The offense performed well at the start and at the end but couldn’t overcome its mid-game failures.
“When it didn’t go well, instead of coming together, we tried to do it on our own,” Grant said. “We went alone. We have to be better. I’ve got to figure out how to put a group out there on the floor that can defend better. To me, it’s a combination of sometimes offensive turnovers leading to stuff, and then other times we just flat out have to defend better. We have to get guys on the floor that are able to to defend their matchup. We’ve really struggled with that the last two games. We’ve been exposed.”
Miller became the first former UD coach to beat the Flyers. He beat his UD predecessor, Brian Gregory, twice when Gregor was at Georgia Tech: 82-72 in 2013 in Atlanta; and 75-61 in 2014 at UD Arena.
Miller had a brief conversation with Grant during the customary pregame handshake. He also spent time talking to trainer Mike Mulcahey, the only person on the bench during the Miller years who stayed on Grant’s staff.
“I don’t cherish playing them or the people,” Miller said. “I really like their staff and their administration. I’ve talked enough about them. I don’t know any of those guys on the team. I don’t have any connection to those kids on that team. Playing them is about us. It’s about our guys. It was about competing hard tonight and playing against a good team. There’s nothing special that got me really jacked up for this game. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the place. Always will. I’ve got a lot of respect for Anthony and his staff and his team. They’re very good. I think they have a lot of good things in store for them as they continue to get healthy. But this was about us tonight.”
Richmond at Dayton, 4 p.m., CBS Sports Network, 1290, 95.7
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