Nwokeji playing bigger role for Dayton in A-10 play

Zimi Nwokeji interview (Jan. 11)

Redshirt freshman has been team’s top sixth man in last three games

Zimi Nwokeji had a front-row seat Friday night when Jalen Crutcher and Ibi Watson combined to score 53 points and took over the game down the stretch in an 89-78 overtime victory at Davidson.

The freshman played the last 58 seconds of the second half and all of the five extra minutes and learned more about playing with two of the Atlantic 10 Conference’s top-10 scorers.

“It’s been a blessing really,” Nwokeji said Monday. “All you have to do is your job and be in the right spot. With the amount of attention, they both attract, it just opens it up for me to benefit, and I feel like a lot of the freshmen have benefitted.”

Crutcher ranks third in the A-10 with 19.3 points per game. Watson ranks ninth with 16.2. Nwokeji has averaged 3.1 points in seven appearances, though his numbers are climbing.

On Friday, Nwokeji scored six points on 2-of-6 shooting. His most important basket came with 46 seconds to play in overtime. With Dayton lead 81-78, Nwokeji set a pick above the 3-point line for Crutcher and then rolled to the basket. Two defenders followed Crutcher as Nwokeji cut through the lane. Crutcher found him wide open, and Nwokeji scored on an easy layup.

Davidson then missed all four of its shot attempts in the final 32 seconds as the Flyers clinched the victory, their first double-digit win of the season, at the free-throw line.

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Early this season, Nwokeji wouldn’t have been on the court at the end of the game. He played a total of 16 minutes in the first three non-conference games and then did not see action in the last two: victories against Mississippi State and Mississippi.

Asked if it was difficult to not get much action, Nwokeji said, “Really, for me, I was just trying to get prepared and ready and just taking it day by day.”

Chase Johnson’s decision to leave the program after the five non-conference games gave Nwokeji an opportunity to earn more time, but he played only four minutes in the first Atlantic 10 Conference game against La Salle.

Then in the last three games, with Dayton playing even more short-handed because of the hand injury suffered by Rodney Chatman and the continued absence of injured freshman R.J. Blakney, Nwokeji has seen his minutes increase even more. He had seven points in 25 minutes against George Mason and nine points in 25 minutes at Fordham and then played a career-high 29 minutes against Davidson.

After the game, Crutcher and Watson both credited Dayton’s improved offensive performance to having Nwokeji, a 6-foot-7 forward, on the court more often in a smaller lineup. Time will tell if that’s a winning recipe for the Flyers (6-3, 2-2), who return to action at 7 p.m. Wednesday against Duquesne (3-3, 2-2) at UD Arena.

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Nwokeji will have to continue to contribute on the defensive end. He was the player guarding Kellan Grady in the final seconds of the second half Friday and did a good job getting in Grady’s face, though Grady made the game-tying 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.

“Coming up from high school, I haven’t really been a great defensive player,” Nwokeji said. “Getting more athletic and more physical, I’d say defense is something I want to be one of my better characteristics.”

Nwokeji is from Quincy, Fla., and attended Maclay School in Tallahassee, Fla., before transferring to The Rock Academy in Gainesville, Fla., for his senior year. He committed to Dayton in December 2019 while attending the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio, and then enrolled at UD in January 2020.

Nwokeji practiced with the team last season and had a great view from the bench as Dayton won 20 games in a row to finish 29-2.

“From a watching standpoint, I gained an understanding of what it takes to win in this league,” Nwokeji said. “This whole time I’m just learning in practice — last year and this year. Just learn and be a sponge.”

WEDNESDAY’S GAME

Duquense at Dayton, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network, 1290, 95.7

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