FLYER FAITHFUL SHINE BRIGHTEST IN NCAA RUN

NCAA 2rd rd OSU vs UDUD fans cheer during a game against the Ohio State University in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Buffalo, New York. Ethan Klosterman/Photo Editor

By: STEVEN WRIGHT – Sports Editor

When Archie Miller was looking at the University of Dayton as his possible head coaching destination, fan support was at the top of his list of positives.

Does a university have the ability to create a home court advantage?

“It’s very evident that the very first thing you realize is we have a spectacular fan base. I mean, spectacular,” Miller said while addressing the media March 28, the day before his team’s game against the University of Florida in the NCAA tournament. “When we play, regardless of where we’re at, what you guys probably experienced maybe for the first time is what our players experience every time we take the floor, whether we’re home or on the road, and that’s within our conference [or] non-conference.”

The men’s basketball team put up a performance to be remembered, advancing as far as the regional finals for the first time in 30 years. I was there during every step of the run, and saw firsthand that it was the Dayton fan base that took center stage.

The support for each of the four games didn’t come as anything new to those familiar with the program. UD fans regularly take over neutral-site tournament locations, as they did at this season’s EA Sports Maui Invitational.

Even other team’s gyms aren’t immune, such as the Flyers game at Duquesne University in the CONSOL Energy Center Feb. 22, in Pittsburgh, Pa.

It reached a different level, though, with Dayton making its remarkable run into the Elite Eight. UD fans took over an entire city, creating their own sense of southern hospitality for their school in the process. They stayed through the end on March 29, one game short of a chance to show off what their greatest act could be in front of everyone in an 80,000-seat capacity football stadium in North Texas.

But the journey to that point began 13 days prior.

NEW YORK CITY
Two days after its quarterfinal exit from the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament on March 16, there was anxious waiting to learn the fate of Dayton’s status for the NCAA tournament.

The team watched the CBS Selection Sunday special at a private gathering at Miller’s house in Centerville, Ohio.

Meanwhile at LaGuardia Airport, several UD fans had to pass time while waiting for their delayed flights home to Dayton. Many hovered around the Crust and Fox Sports Bar restaurants in terminal D.

The selection special comes infused with its own drama, letting fans and teams nervously await their schools’ names to flash onto the screen as each of the field of 68 is unveiled one-by-one during the program.

Next to me were many supporters, including the McCall family and friends from Kettering, Ohio, who were talking travel plans to NCAA sub-regional sites and which days of the First Four at UD Arena they were going to attend.

They had only a short wait before Dayton learned its fate. The last team revealed in the South region, the first to be unveiled by CBS, UD appeared as a No. 11-seed, matched up against The Ohio State University in Buffalo, N.Y.

The terminal quickly was overcome from cheers from those fixated on the screens, everyone happy for another chance to see their team one more time.

Little did I know it was only a small sample of what was to come.

BUFFALO
Just missing the 10 inches of snow that fell in the area prior to the tournament, the Flyers arrived in the All-American City with a rare chance to take down an in-state powerhouse. Fans tried to do the same, as Dayton outnumbered
Ohio State fans in the stands of the First Niagara Center March 20.

Each school participating in a session of the tournament is allocated tickets into a section of an arena around the floor. While there were more UD fans in attendance than just in section 118, that’s where the majority were primarily seen and heard.

In the final seconds of the game against the Buckeyes, redshirt senior guard Vee Sanford hit the winning shot that advanced his team into the third round. After a dog pile celebration, the team made its way to the middle of the floor in front of their fans, throwing up their arms and exciting the crowd into a greater frenzy.

Dayton had more than their own supporters with them that day, with what seemed like almost every other person in the building not rooting for Ohio State getting behind the Flyers.

It was a different story against Syracuse University March 22.

“New York’s College Team,” as the Orange fancy themselves, had already snatched tickets to the 19,200-seat arena months before in anticipation of their team playing there. Syracuse probably held a 10,000-plus fan advantage in the stands during the game. Their section was the arena itself.

Dayton’s play in the game helped silence the local partisans, until the UD pocket awoke a sleeping giant during the second half. Orange fans, apparently hearing enough cheering and chanting from the red and blue clan, created a near deafening “Let’s Go Orange” chant. It sounded more like the Carrier Dome than a supposedly neutral site.

By the end of the game, virtually a pin-drop could be heard from Syracuse fans after the Flyers made their first Sweet 16 in 30 years. Except, of course, from section 118. And Dayton players this time ran over as close as they could get to their fans on the court, jumping up and down and celebrating with them.

“It means a lot,” redshirt junior guard Jordan Sibert said. “I mean, me, personally, I definitely notice the fans, hear them loud and clear. It’s something that everybody needs. I mean, I mentioned this before, when we played Syracuse, you could look up and see nothing but orange, but to be able to see our crowd and hear them just as loud as you could hear the Syracuse fans, it means the world to us, and it gives us an edge in every game.”

Postgame celebration for fans filed over into Cobblestone Bar & Grill on South Park Avenue next to the arena. Buffalo got off easy compared to the next stop.

MEMPHIS
There aren’t words to describe the presence, support and reaction of the Flyer Faithful in Memphis and at the FedExForum.

“It’s not easy to make a 10-hour trip to Memphis to watch a game,” redshirt senior, center Matt Kavanaugh said. “I don’t know how many we had out there, but it felt like we were playing at UD Arena.”
“From what I gather, they’ve pretty much taken over downtown right now,” Miller said. “…Wherever we go, some crazy group of people is going to show up.”

It wasn’t just those from Dayton who noticed.

“I would say coming here, although I thought we had a really good turnout of Gator fans, clearly there was more Dayton fans in the building,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. “I’m sure with the whole seeding situation, people wanted to see them get a win and move on to the Final Four.”

UD didn’t have prominent figures supporting them in attendance, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for Stanford University, or former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow for Florida. They didn’t need them. They had themselves.

The Flyer Faithful took over Beale Street next to the downtown arena before and after games. During the games, they were also more than just section 113. Red and blue apparel was everywhere. FedExForum became UD Arena South.

“It was a home game. I mean, it was a home game,” Miller said after the Stanford win March 27. “I think I said this at the press conference the other day. I don’t know how we’ll play, but our fans will be the loudest, and they will stand out. What I didn’t know was how many were going to be here.”

UD was a win away from the Final Four, and while many Florida fans came from Gainesville, they were still no match in the noise department.

“I think that, more than anything, it’s an excitement factor,” senior forward Devin Oliver said before the game March 29. “People in Dayton are excited. Just happy to see a team that they support so much back where they should be all the
time.”

Thunderous boos rained down during the starting lineups for Florida. “Let’s go Flyers” broke out minutes before the game, minutes into it and throughout play.

Dayton found itself in a hole against the No. 1-ranked team in the country for most of the second half, but fans never wavered.

“We played so hard and no matter what the situation is, backs against the wall, down 18 on the road like at Duquesne [University] or down 10 on the road at Saint Louis [University],” Kavanaugh said. “They never give up and they showed a little bit of that today when down 14 against the No. 1 team in the country. They’ve been supporting us tremendously throughout this run, and we just wanted to show our appreciation.”

The game all but decided in the final minute, Miller gave his seniors a final curtain call by substituting them out with 38 seconds remaining.

With Dayton trailing by 12, it would be easy for fans to bow out, head for the exits, and call it a year. That didn’t happen. The supporters, who had traveled over 500 miles from the Dayton area, gave one final chant.
“We are. U-D.” Over and over again.

“They’ve been that way all the time,” Miller said. “I keep telling everybody. No one understands it. This is the greatest stage for them to shine. It’s the best fan base that a basketball community can be. There’s other great schools, big schools, but you’re talking about a private institution of about 7,000, 9,000 students that are filling up FedEx Forum for these guys. And I think that’s what makes this place really special.”

And after the on-court celebration for Florida was over and the majority of the crowd had filed out of the building, a small pocket of Dayton supporters remained near the court’s entrance to the locker room, hoping to get a final look at their team. They didn’t receive the chance before being led out by ushers, but did get one March 30.

Dayton held a public celebration for both its men’s and women’s teams at UD Arena. Video tributes were played, speeches from coaches were given, and fans got a chance to get pictures and autographs with players. Again, fans showed up in the thousands.

Dayton fans have been recognized by the nation multiple times over the years. In 2001, The Sporting News named it the best fan base in America. In 2012, the Red Scare student section, along with UD Arena, was named as the “Best Under-the-Radar College Basketball Atmosphere” in a contest held by CBS and Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

“I feel like we have one of the top fan bases in the country,” Sanford said. “They were there for us last year in Charleston. They were there for us in Maui. They support us, 13,000 every home game, just about a sold-out arena, and they’re here now. Our fan base is great. They’re always there and cheering us on.”

Titles and distinctions aren’t needed with this group. UD fans know their passion for the school, the team and the game of basketball.

Miller saw it when he chose to be the school’s 16th head coach.

The nation was reminded of it through two weeks in March.