A path to the NCAA tournament opened for the Dayton Flyers on Friday afternoon when No. 1 seed Virginia Commonwealth and No. 5 seed George Mason, the only teams they did not beat in Atlantic 10 Conference play, lost their quarterfinal games.
» TWENTY PHOTOS: Dayton vs. Saint Louis
All No. 3 seed Dayton had to do was win three games in three days — easier said than done, of course, for a program that has never won a conference tournament on a neutral court — against teams it knew it could beat to clinch the league’s automatic bid.
Dayton fans familiar with their team’s recent postseason failures had reason to curb their optimism, and their worst fears were realized late Friday night in a 64-55 quarterfinal loss to No. 6 seed Saint Louis at the Barclays Center.
“It hurts,” Dayton guard Jordan Davis said. “We wanted to win the whole thing.”
“Last year, this happened,” Dayton point guard Jalen Crutcher said. “We lost the first game. We tried. We went out there and we tried our best not to lose, but we’ve got to live with the results.”
Saint Louis pulled ahead early in the second half and answered Dayton’s late comeback attempt with a game-deciding 9-0 run starting at the 4:20 mark. The NCAA tournament dream died then. The NIT dream, if you want to call it that, began.
Dayton will hope to be one of 32 teams to hear its name called at 8:30 p.m. Sunday for a tournament it has appeared in 24 times and won three times. It’s a consolation prize that won’t excite many fans, but coach Anthony Grant and his players don’t want the season to end just yet.
“If we can get another chance to put those jerseys on and play with each other, it would be amazing,” Dayton forward Obi Toppin said. “We have to wait until Sunday to find out, but when the time comes, we’re ready for that.”
There aren’t as many NIT bracket experts as NCAA experts, but one projection had Dayton (21-11) as a No. 4 seed before Friday’s loss. The metrics like the Flyers. They ranked 65th in the NCAA Evaluation Tool entering the game.
Dayton last played in the NIT in 2012, Archie Miller’s first season as head coach. It started on the road at Iowa, losing 84-75, because the First Four was being held at UD Arena. The same thing happened in 2011 when Dayton played at the College of Charleston (S.C.) in the first round and lost 94-84.
It could be a similar scenario this season. The First Four takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday, the same days as NIT first-round games. First Dayton has to get an invitation.
“That’s completely out of our hands,” said Grant, who fell to 0-2 in the A-10 tournament in his two seasons. “I would love to get an opportunity for us to continue to play, so hopefully, you know, with what we’ve been able to accomplish over the course of the year, that opportunity will be available to this group. You know, there’s a lot of good teams out there, so we’ll see what the weekend brings, but hopefully we’d love nothing more than to be able to continue to play.”