The Dayton Flyers could have written a better script for Senior Night. It would have involved winning three or four more Atlantic 10 Conference games and cutting down the nets after a 70-39 victory against La Salle on Wednesday.
That didn’t happen — Virginia Commonwealth clinched its first outright Atlantic 10 Conference championship 24 hours earlier with its 12th straight victory — and still the final script had a happy ending in Dayton’s final regular-season home game of the 2018-19 season.
Josh Cunningham and Jack Westerfield, the team’s only seniors, scored the last six points on 3-pointers. Westerfield’s shot brought a sellout crowd of 13,147 to its feet for the final 30 seconds.
» TWENTY PHOTOS: Dayton vs. La Salle
After the final buzzer, the players slapped hands with fans in the student section. Then everyone gathered at the center of Tom Blackburn Court to wave to the fans one last time. At that point, coach Anthony Grant grabbed a microphone.
“We can not thank you enough,” Grant told the crowd. “You guys are awesome. Go Flyers!”
Later in his post-game press conference, Grant explained why he wanted to thank the fans, who tied a UD Arena record with the eighth sellout of the season.
“Just every night, we have an unbelievable support system here, no matter who we play,” Grant said. “I’ve been in this game long enough, I don’t take that for granted. I mean that from my heart. I appreciate that. I know this is a sacrifice for some people to come out and do what they do to support our program and this team. I appreciate it. I felt like I wanted to let them know I appreciate it.”
The fans will have to travel to see the Flyers in the coming weeks. They play at Duquesne (19-11, 10-7) at 7 p.m. Saturday in the final game of the regular season and then will play at 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. March 15 as the No. 2 seed or No. 3 seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Flyers (20-10, 12-5) clinched a double bye into the quarterfinals by beating La Salle. Here are five takeaways from the 30th game of the season:
1. Senior star: Josh Cunningham scored 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting in his final regular-season home game. He scored 16 points in the last eight minutes, helping turn what had been a competitive game — Dayton led 25-18 at halftime and 36-28 midway through the second half — into the most lopsided A-10 victory of the season for Dayton and the worst A-10 loss for the Explorers (9-20, 7-10).
‘It was a great atmosphere,” Cunningham said, “and I was able to go out with my brothers with a win.”
2. Career first: The walk-on Westerfield earned his first career start in his final game just like last year’s senior walk-on guard, Joey Gruden. Westerfield made the most of his time, too, taking two shots but missing them in the first two minutes before being replaced by Jordan Davis, whose starting job he took for one game.
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Then with 26 seconds left in the game, Westerfield made a 3-pointer in front of the Dayton bench. A photo of the shot shows him smiling as he rises to shoot, and all his teammates behind him had even bigger grins.
“The pressure was on, but I had to go out on a good note,” Westerfield said. “(Starting) was awesome. Four years of hard work and knowing I don’t play that much. I don’t really care about that. But starting the last game was pretty special.”
3. Almost history: While point guard Jalen Crutcher struggled with his shooting accuracy, making 4 of 12 field goals, he tallied 11 points and 12 rebounds to go with six assists. That left him four assists short of the first triple-double in Dayton history.
Crutcher credited Cunningham for boxing out La Salle’s big men. That’s how he was able to hit his career rebound high.
As for the triple-double, he said, “I ain’t going to lie. Trying to get a triple-double is hard. It wasn’t like trying to get it, but they were telling me (what he needed). It’s hard.”
4. Defensive effort: Dayton held La Salle to 28.1 percent shooting from the field (16 of 57), its worst mark of the season, and 14.8 percent shooting from 3-point range (4 of 27). Prior to this, La Salle had not lost an A-10 game by more than 13 points, and this same team beat second-place Davidson 79-69 a week earlier in Philadelphia.
La Salle’s leading scorer, Pookie Powell, returned to action after missing the previous two games with a lower body injury and didn’t score, missing all nine of his shots.
“La Salle is a very physical team,” Grant said. “They came in with a game plan to try to maybe shorten the game, make it a physical game. We had to make some adjustments. It’s rare you play a team for the first time in March. It’s the first time our two teams have gotten together. We had to get a feel for who they were. I thought our guy stayed the course defensively, even though we weren’t having success in terms of seeing the ball go into the basket.”
5. Dunk show: Dayton’s Obi Toppin scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting. He dunked five times, extending his single-season school record to 78 dunks. Several of the dunks might rank among Toppin’s best of the season, though that’s a growing list.
“We’re kind of used to it because he does it so much in practice, but we still get excited,” Crutcher said. “We get surprised by what he does.”
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