DAYTON, Ohio — Nobody knew it was over. Nobody could have.
What everyone did recognize at the University of Dayton Arena on the night of Saturday, March 7, was that they were in the midst of something special, a once-in-a-lifetime finish to the regular season in front of adoring and appreciative fans.
A tie game in the second half against underdog George Washington quickly turned into a rout. Obi Toppin, the national player of the year, sent the crowd into a frenzy with a series of dunks, including one in which he moved the basketball between his legs. The noise was loud enough to feel. You could practically see it.
After the game, which concluded a 29-2 regular season and an 18-0 run through the Atlantic 10 Conference, the Flyers cut down the nets. As players, their families and some fans hugged on the court, they spoke of how this was only the beginning.
Instead, it was the end.
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The greatest regular season in Dayton Flyers history didn’t have a postseason. If the Flyers had lived up to the No. 1 seed they were expected to get if they won the A-10 tournament, they would be playing this weekend in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. It would have been glorious.
Dayton has had great teams. The Flyers were a national power in the 1950s. They reached the NCAA championship game in 1967. They advanced to the Elite Eight with unexpected runs in 1984 and 2014.
This team was different. It really could have won it all. That’s what makes the cancellation of the tournament so tough for Dayton fans.
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To understand Dayton’s love for the Flyers, you have to know Dayton. You might have to be from Dayton, as I am.
At the turn of the last century, Dayton was a bastion of innovation. It was the proud home of the Wright brothers. NCR was headquartered here. My dad worked in the Mead building downtown.
Then NCR moved away. So did Mead and many other businesses. The elementary school I attended was torn down years ago. Good Samaritan Hospital, where I was born, closed last year. None of my close childhood friends lives in Dayton.
Dayton always has been overshadowed by two cities roughly an hour away. Cincinnati has the Reds, the Bengals and two high-profile college basketball programs. Columbus has Ohio State and has become an economic and population magnet for the rest of the state.
Dayton, though, has a feisty resolve, and it’s in the midst of a modest comeback.
Then last year, the city endured two major tragedies. On Memorial Day, at least 15 tornadoes swept through the area. The damage remains visible from I-75, the freeway that cuts through the city.
Two months later, on Aug. 4, a gunman outside Ned Peppers bar in the trendy Oregon District went on a shooting rampage, killing nine people in 32 seconds. Several UD basketball players escaped the scene.
Even before the season, the Flyers knew they were playing for more than themselves.
“We knew that after the tornadoes and shooting happened, we had to lift the community up,” junior guard Jalen Crutcher said. “There was nothing that could lift them up but basketball because they love basketball here in Dayton.”
These Flyers, in particular, were an ideal embodiment for the city they represent. Almost all of them overcame significant adversity.
Senior forward Ryan Mikesell, technically a graduate student after earning his mechanical engineering degree last year, underwent two hip surgeries and sat out his junior season. It was unclear whether he would play again.
Senior Trey Landers, the brother of former Buckeyes defensive tackle Robert Landers, played only 52 minutes as a freshman. Instead of transferring, he worked to improve and became the vocal leader of the team and its only hometown member.
Toppin’s story is familiar by now. During high school in Florida and New York state, Toppin was unrecruited before a growth spurt in his late teens sparked some interest. After high school, during a year at a Baltimore prep school when he grew to 6 feet 9, Toppin knew so little about Dayton that when he boarded a plane to visit the campus, he thought he was going to Daytona Beach, Florida. But he was welcomed so warmly during his visit that he committed before departing.
Though Dayton coaches quickly recognized Toppin’s vast potential, he had to spend a year as an academic redshirt before UD could unveil him. Four transfers, including Ibi Watson of Pickerington Central, had to sit out last season.
In charge of it all was coach Anthony Grant, who played for the Flyers in the mid-1980s before becoming a protégé of Billy Donovan. He became head coach at Virginia Commonwealth and Alabama before reuniting with Donovan as an assistant with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
Dayton hired Grant in 2017 when Archie Miller left for Indiana after leading the Flyers to a school-record four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Grant was viewed as a solid but somewhat uninspired pick.
Grant decided against any quick fixes. His first UD team went 14-17 as it endured some addition by subtraction. Last year’s team settled for an NIT appearance after a lack of depth created by the transfers sitting out caused the Flyers to lose several close games.
This season was expected to be better, but they got only one vote in the preseason Associated Poll. That came from longtime UD radio broadcaster Larry Hansgen, who spent enough time around the team to sense its strong chemistry.
The first real sign that these Flyers might be special came at the Maui Classic. They crushed Georgia and Virginia Tech before losing in overtime in the championship game to Kansas, which finished the year ranked No. 1. Dayton’s other loss came at a neutral-site game in late December, also in overtime, to Colorado on a three-pointer at the buzzer.
It wasn’t just that they won all their other games. They played beautiful basketball. Their offense flowed. They routinely made the extra pass to turn a good shot into a gimme. They led the country in two-point field-goal percentage.
The unselfishness started with Toppin, who played with a child’s joy. He wasn’t above winking or waving at the camera, even in tense situations. He seemed to take as much delight in an assist as a dunk. Well, almost.
“It’s really contagious,” sophomore guard Dwayne Cohill said. “Sometimes on teams, you see the best player, he wants to get all his shots. Sometimes we’ve got to tell him, ‘Obi, shoot the ball. We’ve probably got a better chance to score than if you pass it.’ “
But Dayton proved it was no one-man team. Crutcher, who hit a game-winning overtime three-pointer at Saint Louis in the closest call during A-10 play, shared team MVP honors with Toppin. Watson, Mikesell, Landers and guard Rodney Chatman all played key roles.
As the Flyers rose in the rankings, their fans reacted with a mix of confidence that this team really was that good and a quiet dread that it could all come crashing down. Dayton had a potentially great team a dozen years ago with star guard Brian Roberts and hometown blue-chip freshman Chris Wright. The Flyers reached No. 14 in the polls. Then Wright got hurt and the season went pfffft.
Not this time. If they didn’t rout opponents from the start, they usually had a spurt that left opponents in the dust. The Flyers cracked the top 10 in mid-January and kept moving all the way up to No. 3.
It seemed unfathomable. As much as Dayton fans wish their team was a perennial national power, most regard that as unrealistic. The Flyers face an uphill battle every year just trying to find power-conference teams willing to play them, especially at UD Arena.
I remember interviewing Oliver Purnell when he coached Dayton a couple of decades ago. Purnell led the Flyers out of the dark ages of the 1990s when they once went 4-26 (and still played in front of a mostly packed UD Arena).
In 2003, Purnell’s Flyers earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, UD’s highest ever. I asked him what was realistic for the program. A national title, he said, to my surprise. After the Flyers were upset in the first round, Purnell bolted to Clemson. Obviously, he didn’t believe it, either.
But this year, with no dominant teams in college basketball, maybe there was a chance. The offseason tragedies provided a subtext to the season that gave the success more weight.
In the regular-season finale against George Washington, the only ovation that rivaled those for the Flyers came when Ned Peppers bouncer Jeremy Ganger, who kept the gunman from entering the bar, was recognized during a timeout.
After the game, as players celebrated with their families and in front of fans who didn’t want to leave, Chris Wright, now just a proud alum, soaked it all in.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “This is our pro basketball. No matter if we were 0-30 or 29-2, we’re here and it’s sold out.”
And then it was over. There would be no A-10 tournament, no March Madness for the Flyers.
In what has become a tragic and terrifying March with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and large segments of the economy shut down, even the most ardent Dayton fan accepts that the cancellation of a basketball tournament is insignificant. Of course it is.
The disappointment of a dream season cut short seems trivial. Of course it is.
Perhaps the Flyers would have lost early in the tournament. We’ll never know. They never got the chance.
For a team that delivered beyond nearly everyone’s wildest expectations, for a city that needed such a salve so badly, that sting can’t be erased entirely.
Even in the midst of all the real-world suffering happening seemingly in warp time, it’s all right to ache a bit for what, just maybe, might have been.
© 2020The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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