The first full week of Atlantic 10 Conference play saw the defending champion (Dayton) lose to a team (La Salle) expected to finish second to last, the league favorite (Richmond) lose at home to a team (St. Bonaventure) that didn’t start its season until Dec. 15 and played only two non-conference games and the perennial cellar dweller (Fordham) get thumped twice by a total of 61 points.
In summary, the only sure thing about an uncertain season being played in the middle of a pandemic is that Fordham will finish last or close to it. It had to cancel all its non-conference games because of COVID-19 and then was routed by George Washington and La Salle to open the season.
Dayton (5-2, 1-1) nearly joined Fordham in the basement as the league’s other 0-2 team but beat George Mason 74-65 on Saturday at UD Arena. That followed a 67-65 loss at home to La Salle on Wednesday.
In both games, the Flyers (5-2, 1-1) played shorthanded. They had an eight-man rotation Wednesday because Elijah Weaver and R.J. Blakney were sidelined by undisclosed injuries — not to mention Dwayne Cohill, who’s out all season with a knee injury, and Luke Frazier, who’s been unavailable since undergoing an appendectomy in December, and Chase Johnson, who quit the team because of health reasons last week.
Rodney Chatman joined that long list of injured players when he hurt his hand during the game against La Salle. He played through the pain to stay in that game, but his availability moving forward is unknown. It’s also too soon to tell when Blakney and Weaver will return, coach Anthony Grant said.
On Saturday, Dayton played with seven scholarship players: a senior, two fifth-year seniors and five players who had not played in a college game before this season. The Flyers were even shorthanded in the coaching department. Assistants Anthony Solomon and Ricardo Greer were not at the game for undisclosed reasons.
Somehow Dayton found a way to deliver its strongest offensive performance of the season: most points, highest field-goal percentage (54.0), best 3-point shooting (12 of 25, 48.0) and fewest turnovers (12).
“Everybody that played tonight really contributed,” Grant said. “I thought they did a really good job. On a relatively quick turnaround, the guys were able to figure some things out on the fly and be able to make plays. We out-rebounded them tonight, and they’re one of the best offensive rebounding teams in our conference. It was a great team effort to get on the glass. I thought we did a good job being able to handle the different defenses they threw at us: from the press to zone to man to triangle and two. We took care of the ball tonight. All those things factored into us getting the win.”
Dayton gave up four offensive rebounds and two second-chance points to George Mason. Both of those areas had been weak spots for the team in the first six games.
Two newcomers, Mustapha Amzil and Zimi Nwokeji, led the team with six rebounds each. Amzil also scored 15 points and is averaging 18.5 through two games. The last player to score 37 points in his first two games for the Flyers was Obi Toppin, who had 18 and 19 against Coppin State and North Florida, respectively, in 2018.
Of course, Toppin had a whole season of practice in the program before debuted. Amzil practiced three times before joining the starting lineup Wednesday.
“I didn’t know Mustapha’s last name until the day of the La Salle game,” guard Ibi Watson said. “We were just meeting him and getting to know him. He’s an amazing piece. He’s a guy that doesn’t lack any confidence at all.”
Nwokeji, who joined the team last December, took longer to make an impact but made the most of his first significant playing time. After tallying 20 total minutes of action in four appearances, he played 25 minutes against George Mason and scored seven points.
After scoring his first college point on a free throw in the first half, Nwokeji got two 3-pointers, the first made field goals of his career, to fall in the second half. Both were important shots. The first tied the game after La Salle had taken the lead with 15-0 run early in the second half. The second cut a four-point deficit to 59-58 with six minutes to play.
“I thought Zimi gave us great energy on the defensive side,” Grant said. “We played him in a couple different positions there. I thought he was able to execute his assignments.”
The two most important players on the floor for Dayton were the two players who never left the court. Jalen Crutcher and Watson both played 40 minutes. They combined for 42 points on 15-of-23 shooting. That helped make up for the loss of Chatman, who scored 36 points in the team’s last two non-conference games against Mississippi State and Mississippi.
“Right now we’re missing (Chatman),” Watson said. “He was a big piece of what we had going, too, but we understand we had to step up. Having us two, we feel we can win a lot of games if we bring it every single night and do the little things for the team.”
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