Going through a season of close losses, including coming off to back-to-back one-point defeats, the University of Dayton men’s basketball team needed a reason to think things could start going their way.
Playing in front of a sold out UD Arena, Dayton quickly got out to a lead, which it held from almost start to finish, in defeating Xavier University 70-59 on Saturday, Feb. 16.
Head coach Archie Miller said Dayton had focused on the emotion of playing in a rivalry-type game in the days before and thought his team understood what it needed to do to compete.
“Coming in, they really handled us in game one,” Miller said. “We spent a lot of time evaluating ourselves on our first opportunity to play them and not really dwell on the really close losses that everyone wants to talk about.”
Redshirt senior guard Kevin Dillard played 38 minutes in scoring 17 points, including a perfect 7-of-7 at the free throw line, and was named the Blackburn/McCafferty MVP. He said he was happier to have the Blackburn/McCafferty Trophy than the MVP award.
“The glass trophy means the most to me because it means we got the win,” Dillard said. “That was the main objective of the day to come out here and get back in the winner’s circle. We had a lot of guys contribute.”
Dillard was one of four UD players with double digit points, including redshirt senior forward Josh Benson with 16 points, and redshirt sophomore forward Matt Derenbecker and freshman forward Dyshawn Pierre finishing with 10 each.
Dayton (14-11, 4-7) led 42-39 with 11:25 left in regulation, but Xavier found itself with a rare opportunity to tie the score.
Freshman guard Semaj Christon missed on a 3-point shot, which led to a four-on-one break for Dayton off a rebound by redshirt junior guard Vee Sanford. Leading the break, he would pass to Derenbecker, who drained a three to push Dayton’s lead back to six, and Xavier would never get closer.
“The biggest play in the game in my opinion was Vee Sanford to Derenbecker in transition,” Miller said. “That really, to me, gave a shot in the arm with some confidence as we were really struggling. Vee, to be honest with you, didn’t really have a great scoring game, but he may have made the best play of the game in getting rid of that one to Matt.”
Xavier (14-10, 7-4) scored the game’s first basket, but saw Dayton jump out to a 10-2 lead within the first four minutes of the game, a lead it would never relinquish, bringing the crowd at UD Arena to its feet early on.
“Their energy fueled us from the very beginning,” Dillard said of the crowd. “Ever since we run out of the tunnel and saw the towels waving everywhere, I felt like that’s what really energized us, and we rode that energy and created our own.
Dayton was outrebounded in the first meeting 36-18, but both teams finished Saturday with 28.
Christon led Xavier with 17 points on 5-of-18 shooting from the floor and had a game-high five turnovers.
Dayton had a 13-4 advantage in fast break points, and its bench outscored Xavier’s 35-17.
“I thought our bench was ready to go today with Matt getting 10 and [freshman forward Jalen Robinson] and Josh giving us pretty good action in there,” Miller said. “… To watch Jalen be able to come into the game and give us seven rebounds and nine points, it’s the type of action we need.
“It’s probably the first time in a long time we’ve been able to seize control from our offense and get a nice cushion there as we finished the game.”
Dayton’s win was its fourth in the last five games at UD Arena against Xavier. Although that streak does not come close to approaching Xavier’s dominance in Cincinnati over Dayton, Derenbecker said he feels the tide could be turning, and called out a prediction for next season.
“Playing against Xavier, everyone knows that rivalry,” Derenbecker said. “I’m not even from here and I know that rivalry. You can just appreciate it so much because we know we can start our own streak. They have theirs at their place, and we’re going to break that next year, and then we can get one of ours going.”
The win vaulted Dayton back into the race for a spot in the A-10 Tournament, moving into a tie for 12th with Saint Bonaventure University. With five games left in the regular season, Derenbecker said the team is learning about the focus it needs to play with in order to make the season-end tournament.
“[Freshman forward] Dyshawn Pierre said we have too many highs during the season and too many lows,” Derenbecker said. “We’re trying to stay even keel and just take it one game at a time and focus on [the University of Massachusetts] in a week.”