A 31-game grind full of heartbreaking defeats, exhilarating victories and everything in between ended with euphoria for the Dayton Flyers.
Coach Anthony Grant walked down the bench, slapping hands with players or hugging them, with a big smile on his face even as Duquesne ran its final play at the other end of the A.J. Palumbo Center. Jalen Crutcher waved a towel up and down in the air. Josh Cunningham summed up the night, talking to everyone nearby but no one in particular when he shouted, “We busted their (butts). That’s what I’m talking about, baby!”
Dayton earned just the type of victory it needed in its final regular-season game to build momentum for the postseason, beating Duquesne 78-67 to clinch third place in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
“We knew we had to get a ‘W’ just so everyone knows when it’s tournament time we’re still ready to play,” Dayton forward Obi Toppin said. “We can’t wait for it.”
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The Flyers posted a 21-10 overall record in the regular season — that’s a seven-win improvement over a 14-17 season — and a 13-5 mark in the A-10. They finished ninth in 2018, were picked sixth in the preseason poll in October and will head to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., as the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament with a quarterfinal game at 8:30 p.m. Friday against No. 6 seed Saint Louis, No. 11 Richmond or No. 14 Fordham.
Here are five takeaways from Dayton’s second victory over Duquesne:
1. Team effort: All seven players in Dayton’s rotation scored at least four points. The Flyers shot 52.7 percent from the field (29 of 55) and 38.9 percent from 3-point range (7 of 18). They also shot well at the free-throw line (13 of 17, 76.5 percent).
“That’s what we’re capable of doing,” guard Trey Landers said. “Obviously, you have games where one person is on more than somebody else, but this team is capable of having anybody score in double figures on any given night.”
2. Repelling runs: Dayton led by as many as 11 points in the first half and held a 37-29 halftime advantage. The Flyers extended the lead to 12 points early in the second half.
Every time Duquesne made a run, Dayton had an answer. The Dukes cut the deficit to 54-49 with 10 minutes to play, and Ryan Mikesell hit a 3-pointer 23 seconds later. The Dukes climbed within 59-55 with 7:33 left, and Mikesell hit another 3-pointer on Dayton’s next possession.
Dayton put the game away with a 10-5 run in the final 3:30.
“The way I view this really is we played against a big, strong team,” said Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot, whose team fell to 19-12 and 10-8 and earned the No. 7 seed in the A-10 tournament, “and under our current circumstances, if we’re not perfect, we’re not winning. We just didn’t play a perfect game. We’re just so depleted inside, sometimes I feel we’re a small high school team at times when we’re in foul trouble, which is frustrating to me because we were big and strong and we could substitute at those spots, and we couldn’t substitute. We just played 6-4 and 6-5 in there, which is a problem.”
3. Continued excellence: Toppin led the Flyers with 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting in 23 minutes. He passed Tony Stanley’s mark (431 points in 1997-98) for most points scored by a Dayton freshman, pushing his season total to 447. He increased his scoring average to 14.4, which puts him ahead of the freshman record of 14.3 set by Johnny Davis in 1973-74.
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Duquesne’s student section talked trash to Toppin throughout the night, but if anything, it made him perform better. He had seven points in one 69-second span in the second half.
“I heard them,” Toppin said. “I just used that to pump me up. I was just playing through it. That’s wherever I go. The crowd starts talking to me, I like it.”
4. Comeback player: While Toppin is the favorite to win the A-1o Rookie of the Year Award — the honors are expected to be announced Tuesday — his teammate Mikesell should get serious consideration for most improved player.
Mikesell scored 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting. He’s averaged 14.7 points in the last seven games and has topped 20 points four times in conference play after not scoring more than 18 in non-conference action.
5. Road warriors: Dayton finished 7-2 on the road in the conference play and 6-3 at home. It’s the first time it has ever had a better road record than home record in conference play.
“I’m really proud of the guys,” Grant said. “A lot of grit, a lot of resiliency tonight and a great team effort.”