BUFFALO, N.Y. – The locker room was quiet, Dayton’s once-raucous celebration of its 55-53 win over third-seeded Syracuse having died down in the wake of a half hour of interviews, when the last remaining Flyers began to trickle out of the locker room and into the hallway toward the team bus.
Among them was senior forward Devin Oliver, the team’s second leading scorer this season. In his final year at Kalamazoo Central High in Michigan, Oliver had been among a group of students to win a video contest where first prize was having President Barack Obama deliver their graduation address. When Oliver got the chance to meet Obama, he challenged him to a game of one-on-one. Now a voice piped up among the players, asking if Oliver had seen a tweet sent out by the official White House account a few minutes before. It read:
Congrats to the @DaytonFlyers on a huge upset win! Devin Oliver, I may need to take you up on that pick-up game one of these days. -bo
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) March 23, 2014
The group began to read the message aloud, a word-by-word crescendo, and then suddenly there was a burst of shouting signaling a party reignited: OHHH! WOW! HE REMEMBERED! Once nearly left for dead on the tourney bubble, these Flyers were heading to Memphis for the Sweet 16, and they had everyone’s attention now, even the commander-in-chief's.
Six weeks ago, the Flyers took even longer to leave the locker room, glued to their seats in disbelief after a buzzer-beater against Saint Joseph’s put them at 1-5 to start Atlantic 10 play. Thus Dayton had to get hot even to reach the tournament, going 10-2 between the start of February and Selection Sunday. But now the team has won South region two thrillers in three days – first in the final seconds against No 6 seed Ohio State, and then again in Saturday’s nailbiter over Syracuse – and left no doubt that it belonged in the Big Dance. Point guard Khari Price began to say his team had proven it was among the best teams in the country, then corrected himself to quantify it more definitively. “Sweet 16 – I guess you could say we’re at least 16.”
Where the Orange stood entering Saturday was a subject of wide debate. They had begun the season 25-0 before injuries and a sudden onset of offensive infirmity left them limping into the postseason, having dropped five of their final seven. On Thursday they torched Western Michigan by 24 to restore some of their luster, their vaunted 2-3 zone smothering an overmatched mid-major, but against Dayton they seemed more vulnerable. The Flyers are an attacking team, and the talk during the off day was how they would push the tempo to prevent the Orange from setting up their defense, and how Dayton’s array of scoring options would win in an arms race.
Yet Saturday was played at the pace of a molasses-tub brawl, the Flyers winding down the shot clock on possession after possession as they prodded for holes in Syracuse’s defense. It was a slog of a first half in which neither team shot better than 35 percent, and Dayton took a 20-18 lead into the break. The Orange endured miss after miss from their trio of scorers – guards Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney and forward C.J. Fair – who combined to make just 3-of-19 field goal attempts in the first half.
But at halftime, Flyers coach Archie Miller was encouraged. “Why not us?” he asked his team, repeating the mantra he’d adopted since their regular season finale against Richmond. And in the second half, even as Syracuse found its footing on offense, Dayton refused to cower. When Orange forward Rakeem Christmas emphatically blocked a shot by Dyshawn Pierre, Vee Sanford -- who hit the game-winner against the Buckeyes -- went right back at Christmas to arc a floater over him for a bucket. When Fair and Ennis began penetrating and scoring near the basket to help Syracuse finally edge in front with under 10 minutes left, Oliver hit a pair of free throws and Scoochie Smith drained a quick-release three to put Dayton back up by four at 44-40 with 5:33 remaining. And when Ennis drove in for two more scores to get Syracuse within one at 47-46, Smith scored again, this time eluding a pursuing Michael Gbinije on a breakaway, and the Flyers led by three with under two minutes to go.
Then came the first thing resembling a dagger, a deep three from the Flyers’ Jordan Sibert to put Dayton up 52-46 with 50 seconds on the clock. It was a gutsy shot even to attempt from that distance, but “Jordan’s that kind of guy,” Oliver said after.
Ennis, the Orange’s preternaturally cool freshman point guard, seemed like that kind of guy too. After a personal 5-0 run in which he scored on a three-point play and hit two more free throws, the Orange down one again with 25 seconds to go. Syracuse fouled on the inbound, sending Dayton’s Dyshawn Pierre to the line. It was the sophomore’s second set of high-pressure free throws in three days, after his trio of shots in the final minute helped put Dayton in position to upset Ohio State. Despite his 67 percent mark from the line this year, Pierre enjoyed full confidence from his teammates.
“Nothing really bothers him,” said forward Devon Scott. “He’s one of those guys that likes to keep it chill and mellow.” When asked what he was thinking at the line in that situation, Pierre said: “I try to make sure nothing’s going through my mind.”
He sank both, then Ennis made another layup. On the inbound, Fair and Gbinije trapped Sibert in the corner, forcing him to step out of bounds for a turnover. But Ennis, who had gotten to the basket at will during stretches of the second half, missed what would have been a go-ahead jumper with 11 seconds left. “I don't know why he settled for the jump shot,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after the game. “There was plenty of time. He had space. I'm not sure why.”
Pierre grabbed the rebound and was sent to the line, where he made one of two. Ennis had another chance to win it, this time pulling up for a three-pointer, but it found only iron. “That was a good shot,” Boeheim said. “I have no problem with that shot.”
Sanford grabbed the rebound, and the Flyers entered into the first phase of their celebration. The players sprinted toward Section 118 of the First Niagara Center’s lower bowl, to tug the name on the front of their jerseys and exchange jubilation with the single block of Flyers fans that had held their own against an arena awash in orange. Dayton loves its basketball – look no further than the city’s embrace of the much-maligned First Four for proof – and now the Flyers had given their fans their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1984.
It has not been such a long drought for Miller’s family. This marks the 34-year-old Archie’s first trip to the second weekend (and first to the NCAA tournament at all, having taken over at Dayton in 2011), but big brother Sean, the head coach of West No. 1 seed Arizona, took his Wildcats there just last season, his fourth such trip. “I don’t see a lot of differences between them,” said their father, John, who won four state titles at Blackhawk High in Beaver Falls, Pa. “Arch is just getting it going.”
Even the Miller patriarch wasn’t sure the Flyers could make such a run when he spent this fall in Ohio watching his youngest son’s team. “They’ve got a lot of backbone in 'em,” John said.
Now they’re standing tall.
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