By: Steve Miller – Sports Editor
Kyle Davis darted towards his man Jordan Burgess. The Flyers, clinging to a two-point lead, had to hold on for 20 more seconds. Burgess pulled up, and Davis lept to contest the shot and save senior night. He did.
In a perfect display of fundamental Flyer basketball, the guards secured the perimeter, the bigs boxed out, and the rebound fell right back to Davis, who had crashed in from the corner. With 16 seconds remaining, Kyle Davis secured his two final points at UD Arena.
And then nearly the same thing happened…twice–to Kendall Pollard and Scoochie Smith. Each senior grabbed a defensive rebound and subsequent trip to the free throw line after VCU tossed up its last desperation heaves.
The raucous clamor of the Flyer Faithful transformed into a chorus of praise as Dayton iced a 79-72 victory to secure the Atlantic 10 regular season title.
“We compete against each other every day in practice,” Davis said about shooting from the line. “Every time either one of us got fouled, we looked at each other and just told each other ‘make the first one, don’t worry about the second, just make the first one’.”
But, Davis said, it was not quite the way the seniors envisioned finishing up their home court careers.
“All three of us talked about it, probably two days in advance, that we wanted to go out with a lead and just a standing ovation [from] the crowd and sit on the bench,” he said. “But the game was different. We had to go out making free throws.”
With three seconds to go, there was a chance for that. Smith hit the front end of his two shots, but with subs in front of the scorers table, he missed his second and the ball was still live.
“I should have made the last free throw, so we could have gotten the standing [ovation],” Smith said. “I apologize for that.”
No Flyer fan would ever make Smith apologize for anything. The point guard was the only member of the senior class to play in every single game over the four year span of his career. Smith, in a very real sense, was the centerpiece for the 102-and counting wins of this class.
That number is a school record, as is the now-15 A-10 victories in a single season. On top of that, 2017 is the first time the Flyers have won an A-10 Championship outright.
What’s special about this season, though, is that UD has accomplished what it has in the face of so much adversity.
“Our team, and who we are right now, have learned how to [win] a certain way,” head coach Archie Miller said in the postgame press conference. “From where we started, if you take it all the way back to end of the semester in May when Steve [McElvene] passed away, to watch us grow through the offseason and the preseason and then deal with the adversity that we’ve dealt with, this is about as proud of a group of kids [as you can be] because of what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
“Losing Steve even motivated us more,” Davis said. “Because that was our big focal point. We knew we had Steve and we knew we were going to help him develop as an even better player, and not having him just motivated us to go even harder.”
After the loss of McElvene, the Flyers still had to deal with bad news. Big man Kostas Antetokounmpo was forced to redshirt his freshman year. And forward Josh Cunningham was sidelined with a lower-leg injury just two games into the start of his Dayton career.
But as Miller alluded, the team has figured out how to win anyway.
“I never lost faith,” Davis said. “Josh always [trusted] the process.”
Cunningham ended up returning just in time for this last push to the regular season championship. On Wednesday night, he scored 10 points and grabbed four rebounds–a key contributor to the all-around team victory.
But even if Cunningham were still sidelined, there’s not much doubt that this team would have still found a way to win. That’s just what they do.
The four starting seniors last night were the team’s leading scorers. Smith and Cooke each scored 20 points. Davis added 12 and Pollard 11. And for each except Cooke, his final points came at the line, feeling cool under pressure.
In the face of so much turmoil and change, there are important constants: free throws, the Flyer Faithful, Archie, Scoochie. Even the changing landscape itself has provided constant motivation. They wanted to win for their fellow seniors, for the classes before them, for Steve.
They might not have received the formal send-off ovation they wanted and deserved, but the Flyer seniors are no more at home than when they adapt and overcome. That’s why it was fitting they secured their last home win together. On the court. As the True Team.
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Wong/Staff Photographer