KISSIMMEE, Fla. — No one gave the Dayton Flyers a chance when they left Ohio for Florida on Tuesday. They had just reached a new rock bottom with a loss to Austin Peay, and that defeat followed similar disappointments at UD Arena against UMass Lowell and Lipscomb.
One of the nation’s youngest teams didn’t head to the Sunshine State in search of the Fountain of Youth, but its season found new life in the ESPN Events Invitational. The sky was the limit for Dayton on Nov. 9 when the season began. The same could be said now after Dayton followed victories against Miami and No. 4 Kansas with a 63-61 win against Belmont on Sunday at HP Fieldhouse.
Dayton won its first tournament of any kind since 2011. It hoisted the ESPN Events Invitational trophy on the same court where it won the Old Spice Classic in 2011 and then posed for a photo with Mickey Mouse.
“It felt good knowing we came off of three games that we lost, that we should have won,” Dayton freshman point guard Malachi Smith said. “Just coming back and fighting back felt good.”
Smith was named MVP of the tournament. He had 10 points and six assists in the championship game and averaged 11.3 points and 6.3 assists in the tournament. He’s the first Dayton freshman to win an MVP award at an in-season tournament since Roosevelt Chapman, who was MVP of the Dayton Invitational in 1980.
“I just want to win,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter to me about stats. I try to leave it all on the floor. Coming off those three games, it was raw. I’m a sore loser, so those three games were rough. We were hungry to get a win, and bring up that trophy felt good.”
Dayton (4-3) led Belmont (5-3) for all but 2 minutes, 50 seconds. The Flyers had a 54-45 lead with 7:56 to go after a 3-pointer by Lynn Greer III. Then the Bruins ran off eight straight points, cutting Dayton’s lead to 54-53 at the 4:38 mark.
Dayton did just enough in the final four minutes to preserve the lead. A 3-point play by Toumani Camara, who had nine points, with 4:06 remaining stopped the run. A putback by DaRon Holmes II, who led Dayton with 11 points, and two free throws by Smith in the final minutes helped secure the victory.
Holmes blocked six shots, tying the school record for the second time this season. He had the job of guarding Belmont’s top scorer, Nick Muszynski, for most of the night. Musznyski scored 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting but might have had more if not for Holmes.
Dayton also won the game by making 7 of 18 3-pointers (38.9 percent), while Belmont made 6 of 22 (27.3 percent).
“That was a heck of a championship game,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “Hat’s off to Belmont. They’ve got a terrific team. They battle. They gave us all we wanted. I thought it was a really good college basketball game. I’m extremely proud of our group. They showed a lot of resiliency, a lot of toughness, all the way through. It’s great they were able to be rewarded today with a championship in this tournament. We’re excited about that.”
Alabama State at Dayton, 7 p.m., ESPN+, 1290, 95.7