Grant: Dayton shows ‘unbelievable toughness’ in A-10 semifinal victory against Fordham

Flyers take control of tight game late with 9-0 run; one win from NCAA tournament berth

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Ricardo Greer held one fist in the air and then blew a kiss toward the stands, where his family sat, at the Barclays Center on Saturday. Zimi Nwokeji waved to the crowd as the Dayton Flyers left the court, as did Mike Sharavjamts and the other players that followed.

Explore» PHOTOS: Dayton vs. Fordham

Toumani Camara and DaRon Holmes II raised both hands in the air and applauded the fans who had cheered for them all afternoon. Then a “Go Dayton Flyers” chant rang out as one fan in the front row chewed on a cigar, which did not appear to be lit.

Dayton fans in Brooklyn, back home in Ohio and around the world will have plenty of reasons to light those victory cigars if their team wins one more game.

No. 2 seed Dayton ran away from No. 3 seed Fordham in the final minutes to win 78-68 in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.

“Our guys showed unbelievable toughness,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said, “and a level of grit you’ve got to have in March. We understood that we needed to be able to make plays on the offensive end with the way that they were mixing up their defense. It was more about making plays, and we needed to be able to defend at a high level and rebound the ball at a high level. Down the stretch, in the last 12 minutes or so, our defense went to another level. I’m just really proud of our group to be able to get to this point.”

Grant will coach in the A-10 final for the first time in his six seasons. Dayton (22-11) will play No. 1 seed Virginia Commonwealth (26-7) at 1 p.m. Sunday in the championship game. The game will air on CBS, which will also air the NCAA tournament selection show at 6 p.m. VCU beat No. 4 Saint Louis 90-78 in the first semifinal.

The Flyers and Rams have split the regular-season series the last two seasons with each team winning on the other’s home court. VCU is 3-0 against Dayton in the A-10 tournament. That includes a 71-65 victory in the 2015 championship game, which also took place at the Barclays Center.

Last season, Dayton blew a 15-point lead in the second half in a 68-64 loss to Richmond in the semifinals. Getting back to this point and advancing had been a goal all season. Now the Flyers get their chance as they seek the NCAA tournament berth that has eluded the program — thanks in part to the cancellation of the 2020 tournament when Dayton had secured an at-large bid — since the last season of the Archie Miller era in 2017.

“This is where we wanted to be,” Grant said. “We felt like we had a team that was more than capable of putting ourselves in position to get to a conference championship game. We’re at that moment, and it’s a great opportunity in front of us. We’re looking forward to tomorrow.”

Dayton took control of the game late in the second half with a 9-0 run, turning a 59-58 lead into a 68-58 lead at the 3:38 mark. Holmes scored the first six points in the run with a dunk and then four straight free throws. Mustapha Amzil then made a 3-pointer.

Fordham, whose dream season ended in front of thousands of fans who made the short trip across New York City, had stayed within four points for most of the second half but had no more runs in it. Camara put the finishing touches on the victory with a tomahawk slam in the final seconds.

Dayton shot 60.4% from the field (29 of 48). That’s the second time this season it has topped 60%. It shot 64.4% in the other game against Fordham, an 82-58 victory in January.

Camara set an A-10 field-goal percentage record by making 12 of 13 shots (92.3%). He scored Dayton’s first seven points of the game and finished with 28 points, three short of his career high.

“Tonight, I didn’t get to play a lot of outside the paint,” Camara said. “Coach told me before the game that I needed to be aggressive this game. Even the first time we played them at their place, I was in foul trouble the whole first half. And the second half, they told me go over there and attack and play basketball and that’s what I did. I was successful with that, so I just wanted to keep doing that and it worked. I believe me and Deuce (Holmes) played really good down there. We were really strong with the ball.”

Holmes added 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Malachi Smith had 11 points and seven assists. Amzil made 3 of 4 3-pointers and scored nine points.

Dayton also got important contributions from Mike Sharavjamts, who returned to action after missing the quarterfinal game with a knee injury. He made 1 of 3 3-pointers in the first half in 10 minutes but did not play in the second half.

R.J. Blakney delivered his best performance in weeks with seven points in 14 minutes. He played only four minutes Thursday in a 60-54 victory against No. 10 seed Saint Joseph’s.

“He did a heck of a job,” Grant said. “You asked me yesterday about his limited minutes. What we’re trying to do every game is put the guys on the floor we feel give us the best chance to win. And I think it’s a testament to R.J. with limited minutes the other day, he was able to come out today and make a big contribution to the group.

“So I think it just shows the character of the group that we have and the focus. This team has been through a lot over the course of the year. And they’ve shown resiliency. So I’m really proud of R.J. today because he gave us a big lift on both sides of the ball today.”

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