- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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NEW YORK -- When it was finally over, the Dayton Flyers sprinted down the hallway toward their locker room, jumping and hollering.
"Seven-seed, what?" one of them yelled, the words and the sentiment inciting additional rounds of celebration. One of the team's assistant coaches leaned against the wall and said, "Double freaking overtime -- I was shaking the last 15 minutes." She let out a deep breath and shook her head, clearly in disbelief.
Just seconds earlier, the buzzer had sounded on one of the most exciting first-round NCAA women's tournament games ever played. Seventh-seeded Dayton had survived in double overtime, defeating No. 10 St. John's, 96-90, inside Carnesseca Arena, the Red Storm's home court.
The Flyers had led by 13 points with 5 minutes, 20 seconds remaining, and by eight with just 1:35 on the clock. In fact, at various points throughout the afternoon, Dayton looked to be one bucket away from turning this thing into a blowout.
Then everything changed. The Red Storm went into a full-court press. St. John's freshman guard Ashley Perez, who did not even play in the first half, caught fire, scoring 17 points in 21 minutes, which included all of both overtimes. And senior guard Nadirah McKenith (22 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds) made an amazing play at the end of regulation, driving the full length of the court and scoring off the glass, the ball dropping through the rim essentially at the buzzer.
The Red Storm seemed to have all the momentum and energy, but here's how you knew Dayton would win this one: When the Flyers walked back onto the court before the start of the first overtime, they were smiling. Not maniacal grins, but genuine smiles -- as if they were absorbing and enjoying the moment.
"We just told each other, 'This is awesome. This is March Madness, and we're right in the middle of it,'" said Dayton point guard Samantha MacKay, who played all 50 minutes. "We wanted to have fun. And we did."
So instead of panicking, which seemed quite possible on another team's home floor, the Flyers held steady. Of course, it didn't hurt Dayton's chances that McKenith fouled out on a charging call with 28 seconds left in the first overtime. Only a few seconds after McKenith took a seat on the bench, Dayton freshman guard Amber Deane hit a jumper from the left side that tied the game, sending it into a second overtime. Once there, St. John's, now without its star guard, couldn't do much on the offensive end during that final extra period.
The Flyers also had something else going for them: a serious chip on their shoulders after finishing 27-2 during the season. "We felt disrespected by the selection committee," said senior forward Olivia Applewhite, who finished with 13 points and 16 rebounds. "We know we had two bad losses, but what team doesn't have some bad losses during a long season?"
Mackay echoed her teammate's sentiment. "We thought we should have been seeded anywhere from 3 to 6, but a 7? And to have to come in here and play on someone's home floor? That didn't seem right."
Things don't get any easier. Now the Flyers face second-seeded Kentucky, which defeated 15-seed Navy 61-41 in the first game of the day. The Kentucky coaches, including head coach Matthew Mitchell, were sitting courtside throughout the Dayton-St. John's game, exchanging observations. Perhaps Mitchell and his staff were noticing how St. John's full-court press rattled Dayton at the end of regulation.
The Wildcats, known for constantly harrassing the ball, actually scrimmaged Dayton during the preseason, so the teams are relatively familiar with one another. On Tuesday night, Kentucky and Dayton will play for the right to go to the Sweet 16.
It's hard to pinpoint the key moment during Dayton's victory, because there were so many -- guard Andrea Hoover scored a career-high 24 points and freshman Kelley Austria finished with 21 -- but there seemed to be one common denominator: Applewhite. At the end of regulation, she failed to rotate properly, which allowed McKenith that open lane to the rim. And as Dayton huddled just before the start of the first overtime, Applewhite gathered her teammates. She touched her chest and said, "This is my fault we're here, but I got this. I got this."
During the two overtime sessions, Applewhite snagged an additional three rebounds and scored four points, including the nail-in-the-coffin putback with 47 seconds on the clock. "I was so worried that I was going to end my career thinking I had let my team down," Applewhite said. "The first few plays of overtime, I couldn't shake that thought. Then finally I snapped back into the game."
Dayton coach Jim Jabir couldn't stop pacing the hallway after his team's big win, accepting congratulations and occasionally looking at the stat sheet in his hands. During the game, Jabir was also always moving, once walking to pour himself a cup of water while Applewhite was at the free throw line taking the front end of a crucial 1-and-1 during the first overtime. And just before the start of the second half, Jabir made the sign of the cross.
So you could understand why he let out a deep breath by the time he made it to the media room, more than 30 minutes after game's end. "I'm going to enjoy this win," Jabir said. "Even while I'm in my room watching Kentucky, I'm going to be thinking about this, and I'm going to savor this for a while. It was one of the most complete games I've ever been a part of."