20 years later: Looking back on 2003 A-10 champion Dayton Flyers

Only a first-round NCAA tournament loss put a damper on a banner season for UD

Dan Helm still has his Atlantic 10 Conference tournament championship ring. He has a piece of the net he cut down after that tournament as well as a memory of cutting his hand on the scissors he used to clip that net.

Helm has a wristwatch from the 2003 NCAA tournament. He even has a basketball Dayton played with in its first-round loss to Tulsa. He’s remembers it sitting untouched in the coaches’ offices for weeks after the game before he finally decided to take it home, knowing UD would never display it.

The ball is flat now, but it’s still a poignant reminder of one of the most memorable seasons in Dayton Flyers history.

“It was really incredible,” Helms said. “It was one of those things where everything about it went right — except for the NCAA tournament.”

The 2003-03 team is still the only team in school history to win the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, and it was a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. No other Dayton team has been seeded higher than No. 7, though the 2019-20 team would have topped that if the tournament hadn’t been cancelled because of the pandemic. An 84-71 first-round loss to Tulsa stains the memory, to a certain extent, of the 2002-03 season, but more on that later.

Twenty years later, many players from 2002-03 team — and the student managers, such as Helm — are often reminded of that championship season because they participate in a group text, sharing stories and memories or talking about the current Flyers or how their lives are going two decades after their college days. Sometimes the text notifications become too much. Helm has to mute his phone. He can always catch up later.

“I’ll be at a work meeting and come back and there’s like 700 missed texts,” Helm said. “You’re trying to keep up with everybody. It’s funny because we’re all like in our late 30s and early 40s, and we’re just as immature as we were then with the jokes and the humor and reliving some stories that are probably not print-worthy.”

Many of the stories are fit for print. Helm and players from the team shared some of them in November around the time that four members of the team — Keith Waleskowski, Brooks Hall, Ramod Marshall and Nate Green — reunited at UD Arena for UD’s game against Southern Methodist.

Here’s a look back the 2002-03 Flyers.

Setting the stage

This was the ninth and final season for coach Oliver Purnell, who resurrected the program after Jim O’Brien won a total of 10 games in his final two seasons as coach. Dayton returned to the NCAA tournament in 2000 for the first time in Purnell’s tenure but settled for NIT bids the following two seasons, winning 21 games both seasons.

Four starters — everyone but David Morris — returned from the 2001-02 season: Marshall; Waleskowski; Hall; and Sean Finn. Those were also Dayton’s four leading scorers the previous season. Dayton was picked to finish second in the A-10 West Division.

Hall: “Going into that season, there’s no way anybody thought we would end up a four seed in NCAA tournament. A chance to win the league? To make the big dance? Of course. But to put Dayton back on the national map the way we did, no one could have predicted that.”

Credit: Ron Alvey

Credit: Ron Alvey

The coach

Purnell still has the longest tenure (nine seasons) of any coach after Tom Blackburn (17 seasons) and Don Donoher (25 seasons). He left Dayton after the 2002-03 season and spent seven seasons at Clemson and five seasons at DePaul.

Helm: “The most impressive thing about coach Purnell was he was always the same person whether we were up 20 or down 20, in every huddle, every conversation during practice. The assistant coaches could get mad for him. He didn’t yell at guys. He was just so even-keeled.”

Green: “He was a man of his word. He not only just helped me with basketball, he helped me become a young man. I was going through some things with off-the-court issues, and his guidance and him being around helped me mature and become the person I am today.”

Waleskowski: “One of the things he did in practice was we would play live-action games: 12-point games, 16-point games. He would put six minutes on the clock or four minutes, and you’d have different lineups, and sometimes you would play with the lead, and sometimes you would have to protect the lead. Sometimes you would have to come from behind and claw back from down seven or down nine. He would always have a timeout, and he almost always took a timeout right around six minutes to make it a point to say, ‘All right, guys, here we go: six-minute game. We do this every single day in practice. We’ve done a great job to this point. Now it’s time to go finish it off.’ And you knew how to handle the situation no matter who the other team was.”

The staff

Purnell’s assistants included Ron Jirsa, Frank Smith and Josh Postorino. Miamisburg graduate Kyle Getter, who is now an assistant coach on Tony Bennett’s staff at Virginia, was a graduate manager. The staff also included director of basketball operations Shaka Smart, the future Virginia Commonwealth, Texas and now Marquette head coach.

Waleskowski: “Frank was the quiet, ‘Cool Hand Luke’ type of guy. Easygoing. He wasn’t the guy that really yelled on the court. He was the kind to pull you aside, put his arm around you and talk to you. Jirsa was as fiery as hell. He would get wound up. He was intense. He would get on us, but at the same time, he would get pumped up for us.”

Postorino: “That was one of the most rewarding years of my career — just being a player there and helping recruit some of those guys and being Oliver’s first recruit and him trusting me to be an assistant coach. At that time, the third assistant didn’t recruit as much, so I did a lot of the scouting and on-court development. You could only have three guys on the road at the time, so the head coach and the two assistants could be on the road.”

The players

Hall led the team with 12.8 points per game in his senior season. The top four scorers — Hall, Waleskowski, Marshall and Finn — all landed on Dayton’s 1,000-point scoring list in their careers. Waleskowski was the team’s top rebounder (8.2 per game). Marshall led the team in assists (4.8).

Mark Jones: “Keith was a double-double guy, Sean managed to paint. Ramod could on any night give you 20 (points). So could Brooks. D.J. (Stelly) could come off the bench and give you 20. Nate could give you 20. There were so many players on that team that could really play.”

Waleskowski: “Warren (Williams) was a little bit quieter, still kind of learning. Obviously, he was stuck behind Ramod a little bit. Ramod could play. He was left-handed and could shoot the ball well, read screams coming off penetration. He had a little floater game, a finish game, pick-and-roll action. He made things easy for everybody involved.”

Hall: “Ramod Marshall was one the best point guards to play at the university. I think he’s underrated as far as point guards in the history of the program.”

Hall: “Keith was a glue guy, a hard-hat guy. His game wasn’t sexy, but you knew what you were going to get every night.”

Hall: “Nate Green was the enforcer. Every great team has a Nate Green, a guy that would knock your head off.”

Hall: “D.J. Stelly easily could have started on our team and on a lot of teams throughout the country, but he accepted his role as a sixth man. He would be that microwave guy that came in off the bench and provide immediate scoring.

Hall: “D.J. could have started over Mark that year, but Mark fit what that starting lineup needed. He didn’t look to score. He was going to handle the basketball, make good plays and play pretty tough defense.”

The style of play

Dayton’s offense ranked eighth in the nation in efficiency that season, according to the Ken Pomeroy ratings. It ranked fourth in the nation offensive rebounding percentage. Defensively, Dayton was strong inside the arc, allowing opponents to shoot 44.9 percent (42nd in the nation) but struggled to stop 3-pointers (37.3%, 281st in the nation.

Jones: “We played a lot of man to man. We didn’t press a lot. Offensively, (Purnell)_ allowed us to read and react to things and play off our instincts. When you have a bunch of smart kids, you can allow them to do that.”

Regular season

Dayton’s 3-0 start included a 75-69 victory at home against Cincinnati. It was UD’s first victory against a UC team coached by Bob Huggins. The Bearcats had won 11 straight in the series under Huggins.

After taking a step back with a 78-63 loss at Miami, Dayton lost to Saint Louis and Duke in December. In between were two memorable victories against Villanova and Old Dominion. Hall hit a pure buzzer beater to beat Villanova at UD Arena, and the road win at Old Dominion stood out because of Purnell’s connection to the university. He played at ODU from 1972-75 and started his coaching career there as an assistant.

Helm: “They had just opened a new arena. It was a big deal. It was his homecoming. We were losing, and all of a sudden, we came back and won that game by just a couple of points. He was really emotional after the game.”

After losing to Duke, Dayton started a nine-game winning streak with a 92-85 victory at home against Marquette, which would make a run to the Final Four that season with Dwyane Wade. Dayton suffered only two more regular-season losses, both to Xavier, and entered the A-10 tournament with a 21-5 record.

The A-10 tournament

Dayton has won conference tournaments twice in its history. Both times, the tournaments took place at UD Arena: in 1990, when it was in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, and in 2003, when it was in the A-10.

The Flyers beat Rhode Island, Saint Joseph’s and Temple to win the championship in 2003. Temple upset Xavier in the semifinals. Postorino remembers sleeping in the coaches’ offices after the semifinals to prepare for the final game.

Waleskowski: “(Playing at home) was a huge advantage, and it’s so much fun to play in that type of atmosphere, and then to be able to do it against Temple, a team that’s not easy to play against, playing a zone the whole time. The game is great. We win. But then you get to have a celebration, right? Anytime you get to compete for a championship, it’s a big thing. To win a championship on your home floor, we don’t quite have the ski goggles and champagne, but running around and cutting down nets and holding up trophies and having fans and confetti, that’s awesome.”

When it comes to the Flyers winning only one A-10 tournament in 26 chances, the 2003 team is not popping champagne every March like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the NFL’s only undefeated team.

Hall: “I want them to win. Records are made to be broken.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The NCAA tournament

The Flyers traveled to Spokane, Wash., for the first round of the NCAA tournament and dug themselves a 19-point hole against Tulsa only to tie the game at 69-69 with four minutes to play.

Tulsa had regained a three-point lead when the play that everyone remembers most. Finn rebounded a miss by Hall with one hand and slammed it down only to be called for goaltending.

“Personally, I didn’t think it was close to goaltending,” Finn said after the game. “The ball came straight out from the rim, and I pushed it back through the basket with one hand. Maybe I shouldn’t have grabbed the rim with one hand after that. That probably confused the ref.”

“I was sitting on the bench,” guard Warren Williams said. “The rim was right in front of me. I saw the whole thing. It was a bad call.”

Replays confirmed the Flyers’ assessments, and they’re still lamenting their luck 20 years later.

Jones: “It’s part of the game. You’ve been around it for so long. You know there are missed calls, but it just hurts when you on the wrong side of it.”

Helm: “We just didn’t recover from that. The year before, it was almost the exact same scenario. We were in Philadelphia for the semifinals against Xavier, and we could never beat Xavier anywhere except at home. He had a tip dunk that counted to tie the game. We scored eight or 10 straight points, and it broke the shot clock. We had all the momentum in the world, and that stopped the game for almost 15 minutes. We just didn’t regain the momentum again. We love to give him a hard time about about that.”

The aftermath

Basketball remains a part of some of the players’ lives.

Jones has been the head coach at St. Bernard High School in his home state of Connecticut for nine seasons. Hall and Waleskowski fill the role previously held by Dayton legend Bucky Bockhorn as analysts on the WHIO radio broadcasts of games with Larry Hansgen. Postorino also sometimes teams with Hansgen on the radio and works as a director of athletic development at UD.

Green, who’s from Maryland, stayed in the Dayton area and works as a supervisor at a juvenile rehabilitation center in Troy. He also often appears on WHIO’s postgame show, Flyer Feedback, with host John Bedell.

Helm lives in Cleveland works in the mortgage business with Cardinal Financial.

Jones: “When you have a really good team, most of the time they’re close off the court, too. They have a certain bond that allows them to be good on the court also. It’s not a secret why we were so good because all of us did hang out a lot.”

Hall: “To get bounced first round, it just put a damper on all of it. Everybody was excited for us to make a run, and for it to end abruptly like that, it was really hard to appreciate all the accomplishments we had as a unit that year. Fast forward 20 years now, I really have a full understanding of just how special that season was.”

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