- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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At some point, sled dogs or snowmobiles would have been easier.
For three days in February, the University of Dayton women's basketball team tried to make its way to New York City to play Fordham. For three days, the team was met mostly with frustration. Trying to sneak into the city in advance of a winter storm that eventually buried much of the Northeast, the Flyers first tried to leave Thursday night after a game against Xavier. The flight was canceled, the players dispatched home. They loaded their bags and tried again the next day, the bus actually pulling away from campus on its way to the airport before they learned that the bus waiting for them in Philadelphia would not be able to complete the trek up Interstate 95.
The airport-bound bus back in Dayton reversed course and returned to campus. Bags were unloaded and players went home to sleep, given a reprieve from practice for their troubles.
Finally, on the third attempt to get to Fordham, they made it to the snowbound East Coast for 40 minutes of basketball.
All of this after an earlier storm days before Christmas forced the Flyers to ride a bus for more than 11 hours to make it to a game at Siena College outside of Albany, N.Y.
It seems even Mother Nature is convinced this is scripted as a bleak season for the Flyers. They disagree, even when it comes to scenes more suited to "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."
"We work really hard," senior Samantha MacKay reasoned of the Fordham ordeal. "So what we got out of it was a day off and a little time together on the bus."
Dayton clinched a share of the program's first regular-season Atlantic 10 title with a victory Thursday. A win Sunday against 20-win Saint Joseph's (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET) is all that stands between the outright title and a perfect mark in league play. The team finds itself in similarly uncharted territory on the national map, one of four one-loss teams and ranked No. 12 in both major polls -- just behind names like Tennessee, Maryland, Kentucky and Georgia.
All of this from a team that made it to the NCAA tournament with seven seniors a season ago and opened this fall with as many freshmen -- six -- as returning players. This should have been the definition of a rebuilding season. Instead, the team is constructing the best campaign in program history, one it could parlay into a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament and a real shot at the Sweet 16.
If not more.
"I would be lying if I said I'm not surprised about where we are right now," sophomore Andrea Hoover admitted.
Now raise your hand if you can name a single player on the roster, other than the aforementioned MacKay and Hoover. All of you with 937 area codes put down your hands; we're talking about the rest of the country.
Dayton isn't Delaware. It doesn't have a player like Elena Delle Donne to lift it to prominence. It isn't even Green Bay, which climbed into the top 10 last season with All-American Julie Wojta leading the way.
The Flyers could have five all-conference picks, or they could have none. They lead the Atlantic 10 in scoring offense, scoring margin, rebound margin, field goal offense and field goal defense.
They also don't have even a single player ranked among the league's top 10 scorers or rebounders.
Every team is the sum of its parts, but this team's story is its parts.
Hoover is perhaps the team's best all-around player, its leading 3-point shooter and most frequent visitor to the free throw line, a guard who averages better than five rebounds per game and has more assists than turnovers. She grew up minutes from coach Jim Jabir in the Dayton area, but she didn't know it until he started recruiting her -- and she didn't seriously consider the school until some time after that.
Freshmen Amber Deane and Kelley Austria are the type of impact recruits who likely wouldn't have given Dayton the time of day five or six years ago, when a 3-25 record in Jabir's first season was still fresh in their minds. Deane scored 27 points at DePaul in her second college game and can take over a game at either end. Deceptively tall and quick as a guard, Austria is described by her coach as one of the best on-ball defenders he has ever coached.
A McDonald's All American and Dayton-area native who stayed close to home, sophomore Ally Malott is a 6-foot-4 matchup headache with 3-point range and the team lead in rebounds. Another top-100 recruit and another local, junior Cassie Sant could have gone to the Big Ten or the Big 12 but instead lends her A-10 side a 6-3 post presence with a scoring touch. They are supported in the frontcourt by Olivia Applewhite, a more quintessentially mid-major undersized rebounding machine willing to cede a starting spot as a senior.
There are 10 players in all from Ohio or neighboring states. There is a shot-blocking center from France, Jodie Cornelie-Sigmundova, able to converse in her language with Parisian assistant coach Adeniyi Amadou.
And then there is MacKay, the senior point guard averaging 10 points, five assists and nearly two steals per game.
"She's been a great leader on and off the court," Hoover said. "We are as good as she is. When she is facilitating the ball really well, we are the best team."
That such an assessment is true is hard to argue when you look at MacKay's 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the second-most minutes on the team and then look again at that tally of wins and losses. The list includes wins against DePaul, Michigan State, Toledo and Vanderbilt, in addition to Arizona State in Tempe.
That the sentiment only tells part of the story about MacKay, and in turn this team, is equally apparent when Jabir is asked about the arc of her career.
"I don't know, man; I think that would require a beach and a beer and a long talk to figure out," Jabir said. "I love her. You know, she has this quality where she's got this self-esteem, which is pretty rare in women's basketball. And she's just a tough kid. I get into her and she has this little smirk and says, 'Yes, sir,' and comes right back at me.
"She has a really short memory when it comes to mistakes. Ultimately, she believes in herself a great deal, so even when she was sitting on the end of the bench, she knew she could play."
She just didn't play for a long time. Not much, anyway. She was stuck behind Patrice Lalor for three seasons, but she was also frequently lodged in Jabir's doghouse. She was the equivalent of a shortstop who makes the diving play deep in the hole and throws out the runner from her knees but then watches a routine ground ball roll through her legs. Asked if it's fair to say her first three seasons had their share of ups and downs, she stifles a snort.
Yeah, that's fair.
"I think I always kind of knew what exactly [Jabir] needed or what exactly he wanted from me," MacKay said. "But I didn't, at times, necessarily understand how or when to do what he wanted to do -- or even have the skill. My defense is not the greatest, and it's something I work on every day. And I think when I was very young, that was something that concerned him because he can't have me on the floor if I'm going to cause more points than I create.
"And at the same time, I wasn't taking care of the ball as I needed to."
She is what this team is, a collection of players either out of time or ahead of time. And yet all those question marks came together as a single emphatic statement.
Only recently have expectations caught up to a team that has spent much of the season outpacing them. Instead of playing like the team that earned its record, Dayton in recent weeks played like a team trying to live up to it.
"I do think when you're young, it does become burdensome," Jabir said of the record.
He doesn't dance around the solution.
"Sam's got to play really well for us to be good," he continued about his point guard. "We need some transition, and we need to get up and down the floor and share the ball. And I think we were getting to a point where we were waiting for people to step up and save us, rather than just running our system and getting good, easy shots for everybody."
A recent win against Temple offered signs of the old rhythm.
And whatever comes next, a team nobody thought would be where it is will try to keep enjoying the ride.
"I think our chemistry is what makes us so great," Hoover said. "We all love each other, we all enjoy each other. Even though the Fordham trip was pretty much a nightmare for anyone else, we turned it into a good time."