Defying odds, Dayton in Sweet 16

March, 22, 2014
Mar 22
11:57
PM ET

BUFFALO -- The fourth loss in a row came on a banked 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left, which would be about the time most teams look around and cry uncle.

Sometimes, after all, it’s just not your year.

Instead of heading to the showers, gathering their stuff and shuffling outside, the Dayton players sat at their lockers and talked.

The consensus they arrived at?

“We got this,’’ said Matt Kavanaugh.

Which makes absolutely no sense and all sorts of sense when it comes to these Flyers.

Dayton is an odds-defying miracle of a basketball team, a group that looked as good as dead back in January, that instead won 12 of its next 14; a squad that, in one marvel of an NCAA tournament weekend, survived a buzzer-beater attempt from one of the game’s most reliable seniors in Aaron Craft, and another from one of the game’s most reliable freshmen in Tyler Ennis.

And most important, an 11 seed that not only upset Syracuse 55-53, but also sent a heavily partisan Orange-clad crowd onto the New York Thruway rather than into the Buffalo watering holes to celebrate.

“Nah, I’m not surprised at all,’’ coach Archie Miller said. “They are the most oblivious group I’ve ever been around. That’s partly a curse and partly what makes them so special. They don’t know you’re not supposed to do what they did. They’ve got no baggage, no worries about the NBA or who’s going to score what. They just play.’’

When the Flyers beat Ohio State on Thursday afternoon, they made the requisite celebratory March pile-up to swarm Vee Sanford, who hit the game-winner.

[+] EnlargeJordan Sibert
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsDayton's Jordan Sibert drives past Syracuse's Trevor Cooney.
Two days later when Ennis’ open 3 clanked off the back of the rim, they chest bumped a little, ran over to jump in front of their fans and then abruptly turned to get in line and shake hands.

“We just thought, ‘Why not us?’’ Devon Scott said. “I mean, why not us?’’

It’s a valid question, especially in this topsy-turvy, up is down NCAA tournament but one you wouldn’t expect the Flyers necessarily to ask.

Why not Dayton? Well, besides that January swoon, there is the fact that the Flyers aren’t terribly experienced -- Devin Oliver is a senior, Sanford and Kavanaugh redshirt seniors, the bulk of the roster made up of sophomores and freshmen.

And they aren’t really experienced in this postseason thing. They played one game in the NIT two years ago and sat out every postseason tourney last year.

Heck, forget these players, the last time Dayton was in the NCAA tournament was 2009; the last Sweet 16 was 1984.

Archie Miller was 5.

So that’s the why not them.

But here’s the why.

Call it oblivious, as Miller did, or use the players’ preferred adjective of resilient. Either way what you’ve got is a team that has a serious sense of self. They sat in that locker room after Saint Joseph's guard Langston Galloway banked in the 3 to beat them and decided they would do something about it.

And they did. Not with fanfare or excitement, just methodically.

“That just shows the character of this team,’’ Oliver said. “We didn’t start the conference season the way we wanted to but just told each other, that’s OK. We’ll win them all. And we almost did.’’

Syracuse was almost heading the opposite direction heading to Buffalo. The Orange, winners of 25 in a row to start the season, stumbled into the NCAA tournament, losing five of their last seven.

Still, when Syracuse dismantled Western Michigan in the second round, it was hard not to believe that the Orange had solved what ailed them.

Turns out that was just fool’s gold. The same team that struggled offensively down the stretch was woeful against Dayton. The Orange failed to connect on a single 3-pointer, Ennis’ last-second miss sealing Syracuse’s fate at 0-for-10.

A team that looked ripe for another Final Four run maybe a month ago instead takes the early bus back home.

“Overall it’s hard to win making layups,’’ Jim Boeheim said. “At some point in time you need to knock something down from the perimeter, and we didn’t. It was just not a good offensive game for us.’’

It wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty for Dayton. Following the pattern of the early Saturday game rock fights, the Flyers shot 34.8 percent to the Orange’s 30 for a 20-18, needles-in-the-eye first half.

Yet Dayton, with no experience, never got rattled. The Flyers all but squandered a six-point lead midway through the second half. Ennis started to drive to the basket almost at whim, pushing the Orange to within three with 40.5 left.

And then Oliver clanked the front end of a one-and-one off the rim and Ennis followed up by getting a foul and sinking his two chances to make it 52-51, Dayton with 24.8 seconds left.

Dyshawn Pierre was fouled on the inbounds. He’s a 67 percent free-throw shooter.

“At first I was thinking, ‘I have to make these free throws,'’’ he said. “But then I just didn’t think about it. I just wanted to do it for my team. That’s all that mattered.’’

Naturally he sank both.

Still Ennis with the ball, pushing up the court, well that’s a vision that people have seen before. The freshman made the exact same play against Pittsburgh earlier this year

“My heart was in the bottom of my stomach,’’ Oliver said. “I remember that Pitt game.’’

But that would have been the sensible finish.

Dayton doesn’t do the sensible or the obvious.

The Flyers have their own way of doing things, a blissfully oblivious, illogical logical path that now is headed for Memphis.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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