Until Saturday at the Smith Center, that had been the end of the heartbreak for Dayton in the series. It had won five straight games and swept two games a year ago by a total of 51 points. Now there’s another sad chapter for the Flyers: a 76-69 defeat that had none of the drama of those earlier games but just as much disappointment.
“It’s hard to think about right now,” Dayton guard Koby Brea said, “but they flat out played better than us. They came out more aggressive than us. I feel like we started off the game sluggish, and it caught up to us.”
Dayton (13-7, 5-2) fell a game back of Virginia Commonwealth (15-5, 6-1), which won 74-62 at Richmond on Friday, and Saint Louis (14-6, 6-1), which beat La Salle 84-71 on Saturday in St. Louis, in the Atlantic 10 Conference with 11 games to play. George Washington (10-9, 4-2) moved into a tie for fourth place.
Dayton never led in the game despite having a fully healthy rotation for the first time this season. Malachi Smith returned Tuesday against Davidson after missing 11 games with an ankle injury. Kobe Elvis, who hurt his knee minutes before Smith in a 79-75 overtime loss to Brigham Young on Nov. 25, returned Saturday after missing 12 games.
In many ways, it looked as if Dayton was starting over in terms of chemistry on the court. A group of eight players carried it during a seven-game winning streak that ended with the 63-62 loss to Virginia Commonwealth on Jan. 13 at UD Arena. Now coach Anthony Grant has to figure out what works with Smith and Elvis back in the rotation.
“It’s another rendition, right?” he said. “We’ve had maybe three or four renditions based on where we were in the preseason and guys that were out. Once the season started, the guys were out and then the guys came back and then they were out again. Now we got another rendition of ourselves. But I like the rendition now that we’ve got everybody available. We’ll get better.”
“This is the first game that we’ve had our full team,” Brea said. “Every game we’re kind of seeing new faces. We’ve got to get used to playing together and get reps. I think that kind of plays a part.”
Elvis finished with eight points and made 2 of 3 3-pointers in 13 minutes. He scored five of his points in the last 33 seconds.
Smith scored 12 points on 3-of-6 shooting in 21 minutes. He made 5 of 5 free throws.
Dayton lost this game despite committing only six turnovers, its lowest number of the season.
What hurt Dayton was outside shooting. It made 8 of 27 3-pointers (29.6%), its worst number since A-10 play began.
The struggles of DaRon Holmes II in the paint also hurt the Flyers. He ran off seven straight 20-point games during the winning streak and twice hit 32 points in that stretch. Then he scored 13 against VCU and four against Davidson. He scored 14 points against George Washington but made 5 of 15 field goals.
Holmes and Toumani Camara combined to make 1 of 12 2-point field goals in the first half as George Washington built a 36-22 halftime lead, the largest deficit Dayton had faced since falling behind 42-21 in a 77-49 loss at Virginia Tech.
“I’m seeing more double teams,” Holmes said. “I’ve just got to find a way to create for teammates and keep playing hard and do other things besides scoring.”
Dayton had several chances to get back in the game. It cut the GW lead to 43-37 at the 12:44 mark after forcing a turnover and turning that into a dunk by Holmes. After a defensive stop, Brea took a 3 that would have cut the deficit to three points, but he missed. George Washington scored the next six points.
At the 3:06 mark, R.J. Blakney missed a dunk that would have brought the Flyers within five points.
Dayton made a flurry of shots late only to have GW seal the victory by making 12 of 12 free throws. James Bishop, the A-10′s leading scorer with 21.7 points per game, scored 27 points. He made 10 of 19 field goals and 7 of 10 free throws.
George Washington’s Chris Caputo, who was with the Miami Hurricanes last season when Dayton beat them in the ESPN Events Invitational, beat the Flyers in his first try as a head coach.
“I think we know Dayton is going to be at the top of the Atlantic 10,” Caputo said. “No matter who comes into our arena, you want to be able to compete and hopefully win those games. We were able to do it (today). A great crowd. I know there were a lot of Dayton fans as well. But our student section was incredible, as it has been, as it should be here. But we just created a great environment against a great team. That’s a start.”