Saint Louis celebrated Star Wars Night on Tuesday at Chaifetz Arena. A Stormtrooper walked around the court before the game along with a Jawa and an Ewok, all of them looking right at home with the Billiken mascot, who wore a brown robe out of Luke Skywalker’s wardrobe.
While the Dayton Flyers have their own galactic hero in Obi One, the best player in the Atlantic 10 Conference in the last week, not even Toppin had the force on a night to forget for the whole team.
» TWENTY PHOTOS: Best shots from Tuesday’s game
The Billikens opened the game with an 10-0 run, stretched the lead to 20 points in the first half and coasted to a 73-60 victory. For the second time in 22 games — the Auburn game being the other — Dayton never threatened to make it interesting. It got no closer than seven points in the second half.
Saint Louis (15-8, 6-4) looked like the more desperate team, and it was. The A-10 preseason favorite started off 5-0 in Atlantic 10 Conference play but had lost four games in a row entering this game. Dayton (15-8, 7-3), which has piled up wins against the bottom of the league, fell to 1-3 against teams with winning conference marks.
“They did a hell of a job,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “I thought their effort, their energy was better than ours tonight.”
Here are five takeaways from the game for Dayton:
1. Too many rebounds: The Billikens outscored Dayton 26-13 in second-chance points and had 19 offensive rebounds to Dayton’s 11. Saint Louis, which ranks 18th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, seemed to grab every loose ball.
“We knew coming in that they were a great offensive rebounding team,” Grant said, “and they dominated the glass.”
Dayton had not allowed more than 13 offensive rebounds in a 40-minute game this season.
“Really all game long, they were controlling the backboards,” Dayton forward Ryan Mikesell said. “It’s funny how basketball works like that. Whenever you miss an assignment, for some reason the basketball gods are going to make you pay. Miss a box out and the next possession, somehow the ball just bounces their way. It’s part of it.”
2. Another slow start: Dayton scored four points in the first eight minutes and trailed 34-14 with 1:41 left in the first half. Only an 8-0 run in the final 78 seconds of the half gave the Flyers any hope at halftime.
Early deficits have hurt Dayton a number of times, though it often has overcome them. It trailed Duquesne by 14 in its previous game but won 68-64. It trailed Virginia Commonwealth by 11 in the first half, rallied to regain the lead only to lose 76-71. It trailed George Washington by 22 in the first half and won 72-66.
“We’re finding ourselves in holes too often,” Grant said. “Tonight we couldn’t climb our way out of it. I thought we had opportunities. It seemed like there were plays where we would make a run and we would turn it over and give them easy buckets. We would get them late in the clock, and twice we fouled a 3-point shooter late in the clock, or we would get them to take a tough shot and they come up with the ball, which would lead to fouls or easy shots or free throws. Those type of things you just can’t afford to do.”
3. Lineup change: After starting the same five players for 15 straight games, Dayton put Obi Toppin the starting lineup, and Trey Landers came off the bench. Landers replaced Toppin with Dayton in an 8-0 hole.
“We started him the last game in the second half and felt it was something we wanted to look at today,” Grant said.
4. Scoring leader: After scoring a total of six points in the last two games while grabbing 21 rebounds, Dayton forward Josh Cunningham had a more productive game. He led the Flyers with 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting and seven rebounds. That didn’t stop fans from questioning his play.
Cunningham was expected to be an A-10 Player of the Year candidate and played like it for the first half of the season, scoring 20 or more points five times in 12 games. However, since scoring 25 in back-to-back games against Georgia Southern and Richmond, he hasn’t scored more than 15 points in a game.
“I think obviously when you come in with the accolades and the recognition and success that Josh has enjoyed, it’s tough,” Grant said. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown. People know he’s a really good player, and obviously the focus is trying to limit his opportunities. We’ve got to find a way to help him, but that’s a part of being that guy. We’ve got to figure out a way to make it easier on him, but he’s also got to help himself.”
5. Big picture: Dayton fell from tied for second place into fourth place behind Davidson (16-5, 7-1), George Mason (13-9, 7-2) and Virginia Commonwealth (15-6, 6-2). This was the second game in a difficult six-game stretch — or seven games if you throw in a road game at Massachusetts (8-14, 1-8), where Dayton has lost four games in a row.
The Flyers play at Rhode Island (12-9, 5-4) at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Rams have beaten two of the league’s top teams, VCU and Saint Louis, at home.
“We’re 7-3 in the conference,” Mikesell said. “We’re still right there. We’ve just got to take care of business and move on to Rhode Island.”