Flyers hold off late rally from EIU in 66-63 season-opening win

Senior guard Ibi Watson (No. 2, with ball) led the Flyers with 16 points in a season-opening 66-63 win in front of a sparse crowd at UD Arena. Photo courtesy of Griffin Quinn, Flyer News.

Peter Burtnett
Sports Editor

The University of Dayton men’s basketball team had to sweat out a ferocious late rally by Eastern Illinois, but held on to a 66-63 season-opening win Tuesday night at UD Arena.

Before the game, the Flyers wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts in warm-ups. UD players also had an NCAA “United as One” patch on their jerseys – in reference to the ongoing fight against COVID-19 – and head coach Anthony Grant wore a towel on his right shoulder for the entirety of the game in honor of legendary college basketball coach John Thompson, who died earlier this year at 78 years old.

The Flyers received double-digit point totals from four starters, with the fifth starter, senior guard Rodney Chatman, finishing with 9 points.

Led by senior guard Ibi Watson and redshirt junior guard Chase Johnson, who scored 16 and 14 points, the Flyers jumped out to a big early lead.

Johnson, playing in his first game since Dec. 8, 2019, made the first basket of the season, a three-pointer one minute into the game. Chatman then got a lay-up and senior center Jordy Tshimanga got a two down low to extend the Flyers lead to 7-0, forcing an EIU timeout with 17:51 left in the first half.

By the first media timeout with 15:04 left in the half, the Flyers had stretched their lead to 17-4, with Johnson and Watson making a pair of threes, along with a Chatman lay-up and Watson jumper.

By the next media timeout at the 11:59 mark, the Flyers’ lead had diminished slightly to 25-12, but true freshman R.J. Blakney got his first collegiate points after a rebound and put-back lay-up. 

The next three minutes was largely a back-and-forth of points, but a Chatman steal to Crutcher assist on a Johnson dunk gave the Flyers a 29-19 lead. 

EIU closed the half outscoring the Flyers 14-9, and went into halftime with a 16-12 advantage on the boards, and 7-2 advantage on offensive rebounds.

“We just gotta come out with a different mentality (next time),” said Tshimanga, who led both teams with 8 rebounds. “You know, physicality. First time playing outside competition in a real game that we saw how physical it is, so now we can go back and practice and watch film and see what we can do to get better… it’s something we’ll definitely fix.”

Grant added that the Flyers expected the physicality from EIU, but that the biggest problem was allowing “second and third chance points.” 

EIU got 10 second chance points to just 5 for the Flyers.

Like how they started the game, the Flyers came out strong to start the second half, stretching their lead to 41-33 at the under-16 media timeout and up to 48-33 at the under-16 with 14:28 left in the game. 

The lead got as high as 16 after a Watson three-pointer with 13:18 left in the game, but the Panthers started chipping away slowly, led mostly by senior guard Kashawn Charles, who poured in 9 second-half points. 

Second and third chance points were an issue for Grant, and this allowed EIU to stay in the game throughout the night. At the under-8 media timeout, the Flyers led 57-45.

From this point until the final media timeout with 3:39 left in the game, the teams exchanged points and the Flyers held a 63-52 advantage, extended to 64-52 after a Johnson made free throw.

In the final 3:39 of the game, Charles added five points, and a jump shot in the paint from Panthers’ senior guard Josiah Wallace closed an 11-0 run for the Panthers to cut the Flyers’ lead to one, 64-63, with 16 seconds left.

Missed free throws in 1-and-1 situations by both Chatman and Crutcher allowed this Panthers run, but when Crutcher was fouled again with 12 seconds left, he knocked down both free throws to give the Flyers a 3-point lead.

That lead would hold after Wallace missed a potential game-tying three, and the Flyers came away with a 66-63 win to open the 2020-21 season. 

By the end of the game, points and rebounds were well-distributed, with all five starters scoring 9 or more points, and four players bringing down 5 or more rebounds.

“It’s huge,” Watson said. “It shows, similar to last year, we had a lot of guys who were capable of getting 20 on any given night, capable of scoring in double figures. I think it spoke to our versatility that we have still, but it’s good to have that balance because it’s hard for other teams to key on our guys because we have a lot of guys who are capable. It’s good to have that love spread across the court.”

Crutcher led the passing game with 6 assists, but Johnson and Chatman both added 4 each. Chatman also nabbed four steals, more than all of EIU’s players combined. 

With a 1-0 record, the Flyers play SMU next at UD Arena on Saturday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. SMU is currently 2-0 on the season, and faces Houston Baptist on Wednesday.

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