R.J. Blakney (No. 23) drives into the paint with support from Mustapha Amzil (No. 22) and Kobe Elvis (No. 24) during the second half of the Flyers’ five-point win over the Hokies on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Keegan Gupta, Flyer News.
Peter Burtnett | Sports Editor
Between two tough road games, the Dayton Flyers men’s basketball team played with effort and energy in a 62-57 win over Virginia Tech on Sunday at UD Arena.
“I thought the story of the game was the effort and energy that our guys played with right from the jump,” Flyers head coach Anthony Grant said. “When you look at (Virginia Tech’s) numbers, both offensively and defensively, (they’re) one of the more efficient teams in the country. And so we talked about having appropriate fear, just understanding what they were capable of and what we needed to do, how disruptive we needed to be, and I thought our guys did a great job tonight, to be able to do that.”
Whether it was good defense or just bad offense, both teams were scoreless through the first four minutes, with the Flyers missing all five field goals and turning the ball over once. Meanwhile, the Hokies missed three shots and turned the ball over three times during the opening stretch.
“We really wanted to make it as difficult as we possibly could,” Grant said. “(We have) a lot of respect for what they’ve done. When you watch them on film and you see the numbers, it’s really impressive. So what gives us the best chance to be successful, we had to be disruptive. And I thought our guys did a good job of trying to do that today.”
The effort on the defensive end finally translated to scoring on the offensive end, especially on a fast break dunk by freshman forward DaRon Holmes II after a rebound by sophomore forward Mustapha Amzil. The dunk capped a 10-0 run to give UD a 10-2 lead with 11:49 left in the first half and Virginia Tech on a 3:42 scoring drought.
During the run, redshirt junior guard Elijah Weaver added a major spark off the bench, assisting a corner three by freshman guard Malachi Smith to open the scoring for the Flyers, and also made a backdoor cut and finished a layup from an assist by sophomore forward R.J. Blakney, who also knocked down a three during the run.
Virginia Tech made a small push to get back into the game, but Holmes II made a put back dunk over Justyn Mutts, and Amzil was found for a fastbreak three to force a timeout by the Hokies. With 8:20 left in the half, the Flyers’ lead was up to 15-6.
“That [dunk] gets everybody going, gets everybody hyped,” Blakney said. “Every time somebody gets it done, we’re ready to do it again.”
Weaver continued to make a big difference, making a driving layup before driving towards the basket again. This time, he was fouled hard in the face by Mutts, who was called for a flagrant 1, giving the Flyers two free throws and the ball.
Weaver knocked down both free throws, but the Flyers couldn’t score, and the Hokies instead made a small push to cut the deficit to six, but Blakney knocked down a pair of threes to give the Flyers a 27-15 lead with 2:17 remaining in the first half.
“I thought his effort, his energy was great,” Grant said. “R.J. is a really, really good basketball player, and so it was great to see him offensively come out and play with the confidence and obviously it’s always good when you see shots go in…
“But his impact on the game, for what he can do defensively, rebounding the ball, obviously his ability to score the ball, we think he’s got a tremendous upside, so it was great to see him be able to go out and show the rest of the country what we think he’s capable of.”
To close the first half, the Hokies made three straight field goals to trim the deficit to 29-22 at halftime. At the break, Blakney led all scorers with 11 points, and the Flyers outrebounded (20-14) and out-shot (42-33 percent) the Hokies in a convincing first-half showing. Even while allowing 11 points off turnovers and scoring just two, the Flyers also held a significant advantage on three-point percentage (42-27 percent).
“They got some open looks that they missed,” Grant said. “That’s basketball. Some days, shots aren’t gonna fall for you.”
Smith provided a big boost for the Flyers to start the second half with a pair of layups, offensive rebounds, and one each of a steal and assist to help the Flyers push ahead to a 41-29 lead with 15:49 left in the second half. Sophomore forward Toumani Camara also made a pair of field goals to push the Flyers further ahead.
At the time of that timeout, Smith had seven points, four rebounds (three offensive), three assists and one steal, most of which came during the Flyers’ run to start the second half.
Dayton stepped up the defensive intensity, as Smith stole the ball and assisted a three by Blakney, who followed with a steal of his own and fastbreak layup to increase the lead to 47-29. Virginia Tech called timeout with 13:35 remaining in the game. Over a four-minute stretch, the Hokies had turned the ball over five times and had gone scoreless for 2:37 of that span.
“I thought we had a stretch there in the second half where we were really disruptive where we forced a few turnovers and allowed us to build the lead,” Grant said. “But I think the other thing it did is it kind of took them out of their comfort zone in terms of what they liked to do. I thought I thought it was disruptive and effective even when we didn’t get turnovers.”
The Hokies started to fight back into the game, cutting the deficit to 14 with a layup and a pair of free throws.
The Flyers’ offense continued to sputter, making just two of ten field goals, missing five straight, and turning the ball over five times over 6:07 as the Hokies went on a 12-1 run to trim the Flyers lead to 48-41 with 7:30 left in the game.
Virginia Tech continued to get to the free throw line on fouls that frustrated the Dayton crowd, and Grant was forced to call a timeout as the Flyers lead was reduced to 52-47 with 5:33 remaining.
Grant and Amzil both said after the game they have to “control what we can control,” and that they always face three teams.
“You got your team, you got the opponent, and then the officials have a team, they want to do a good job,” Grant said.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Amzil said. “I just gotta focus on my game and help my team focus… We just got to keep the third team (from) giving effect to the game, it happened a little bit, but we got to believe in ourselves to do the stuff we’re doing
Five points remained the difference when the media timeout arrived with 2:45 left in the game, but the Flyers had gone over four minutes without a field goal and had made just one of their last 11 attempted.
To end that run, Blakney faced up against his defender and drilled a three (5-5 in the game, tied for second-best in Flyers history) to push his scoring total to 19 points.
“First and foremost, I was just thinking that we needed to stay aggressive,” Blakney said. “We needed to put the ball in the bucket, and we just needed to do that at that moment. I was happy man. Shoot, it’s just, we really wanted to win this, I wanted to win, my teammates wanted to win, and for that shot to be knocked down, it was great.
“It was just that my teammates were able to find me and I was doing my job and knocking it down. My team did a great job of passing it up and I just had the confidence to take the shots.”
Grant emphasized the necessity of Blakney’s shot in a late shot clock after a “dry spell where we had a difficult time finishing.”
After buckling down on defense, Amzil got a layup to fall and increased the Flyers’ lead to 59-49.
“The most important thing was we shared the ball,” Amzil said. “We found the open guy and made our shots and all that happened because we played defense. We get to keep playing defense 40 minutes a game.”
“Mustapha had two really big defensive plays down the stretch there that I thought were huge,” Grant said. “One, I think he forced a travel, and another one I think he walled up and forced a miss.”
Even after a three cut the lead down to seven, Weaver knocked down a pair of free throws to give the Flyers a 61-52 advantage.
Mutts finished a three-point opportunity, and the Flyers weren’t quite done yet as their lead was cut to 61-55 with 20.5 seconds left. But the Flyers were able to get the stops they needed, even though they made just one of their last four free throws, and came away with a 62-57 win to improve to 7-4.
“Our guys were able to come up with rebounds and stops,” Grant said. “Those were critical. As much as we like to focus on the scoring and the offensive side, I think our guys made a lot of plays on the defensive side tonight as well.”
After the game, Grant joined his players in celebrating with the Flyers’ student section, Red Scare.
“The crowd was huge tonight,” Grant said. “That energy is huge for us. We had an unbelievable atmosphere in there today. The game kind of slowed down (at) the 13-minute mark… that kind of took the fans’ energy a little bit, but I thought the last four minutes we got great energy from our fans and sometimes you just need to make a play and that ignited our crowd. And that ignitement [sic] from the crowd gives a tremendous amount of energy to the guys on the floor. It all makes a difference, so we’re really grateful for our fans and for the support we get.”
Next up for the Flyers is Ole Miss on the road Saturday at 6:30 p.m.