- Tom Archdeacon columnist
A still-stunned Darrell Davis stood in the cramped hallway outside his Dayton Flyers dressing room in the bowels of Humphrey Coliseum on Sunday night and talked quietly about the world beyond.
“I know people are wondering what’s going on with the Flyers,” the 6-foot-5 senior guard said. “I know they’re not used to this.”
UD had just lost in heart-wrenching fashion to Mississippi State, 61-59. The Flyers had come back from 21 points down in the second half to tie the score 59-59 when Davis made one of two free throws with 1:08 left.
A Bulldogs turnover gave the ball back to Dayton with 49 seconds left. UD missed a shot, got an offensive rebound and then put the ball in Davis’ hands.
It seemed like the perfect scenario.
Suddenly, UD had all the momentum. It’s most experienced player had the ball with a chance to drive and score or at least be fouled and that could enable the Flyers to overcome the third-largest halftime deficit in Dayton basketball history.
The record was 20 points against Cincinnati at UD Arena in 1987. Ironically, Flyers coach Anthony Grant was the senior captain on that team. But this comeback – UD trailed by 15 at the break — would be on the road with few Flyers fans in the crowd.
Davis drove from the wing and suddenly, right in front of the Flyers bench with just four seconds left and MSU’s Nick Weatherspoon guarding him, the ball bounded away from him.
The Bulldogs’ Quinndary Weatherspoon ended up with it, drove down the side of the court and went in for the winning layup with just under one second left.
Instead of a comeback for the ages, it was the wrong kind of history.
The Flyers dropped to 3-4. It’s been 23 seasons since they’ve had a start like this.
Afterward, Davis reflected on that, the last play and what’s next:
“Honestly I don’t remember much of anything on that last play. I just know there were like 11 seconds left and Josh (Cunningham) set a ball screen. I had a weird angle to the basket and the ball slipped out of my hand. I’m the senior leader. I’m supposed to handle the ball. I’ll take the fault.
“I’ll go watch film to see if there was someone I could have passed the ball to. And I’m gonna get back in the gym and work on that exact same play.”
And that goes back to initial thought” What’s going on with the Flyers?”
It’s a team where Davis is the only senior who plays. Much of the rest of the injury-thinned roster — starter Xeyruis Williams was still sidelined with back issues — is made up of young or inexperienced players.
They especially need more time in the gym.
“I know we’re going to get better,” Davis said. “I think tonight we showed what we were made of in the second half. We had a lot of heart and desire and respect for each other.”
One person who agreed was MSU’s veteran coach Ben Howland:
“They’re so young and they fought hard. They forced a lot of turnovers with their trapping zone. For them to fight like that and not quit when they were down 21 is a credit to their coach and staff and to them. They gave themselves a chance to win here. They had the ball at the end. We were just very lucky tonight.”
As he stood in the middle of the court after the game, Howland had a lot of nice things to say about Dayton basketball:
“Coach Donoher is one of my heroes. I was very friendly with (the late) Rick Majerus and Rick absolutely worshipped the ground he walked on. What a great coach, a great person and a great man.
“I know the whole Paxson connection, too, and the fans! What a special place.
“I was doing A-10 basketball for CNBC four years ago and did a couple games in Dayton. Just an unbelievable crowd. That may be the best college basketball fan base – or at least one of the best – in the country .”
The game began as a glorious homecoming for freshman point guard Jalen Crutcher, who made his first college start.
He grew up three hours away in Memphis and a crowd of 35 people – most wearing blue shirts bearing his red No. 10 and the name CRUTCHER across the back – showed up.
Greg Crutcher, Jalen’s dad, sat in the front row, right behind the UD basket in the second half, with four of Jalen’s cousins. Two dozen more people from Memphis sat behind him. Across the Coliseum was Eric “Cowboy” Robinson, Jalen’s AAU coach.
When he came onto the court, Crutcher looked for all of them. Greg said he got a wave. Cowboy got “a salute.”
“Right now he’s basically just getting his feet wet,” Greg said. “As the season progresses, you’ll see a lot more of him come out.”
You actually saw a lot Sunday night.
Crutcher opened the game hitting two straight three-point attempts to put UD ahead 6-5 with 18:17 left. He would end the night as the Flyers leading scorer with 18 points, though he, as did Kostas Antetokounmpo and Darrell Davis, had five turnovers.
Cowboy Robinson was not surprised to see him start:
“Not at all. He’s a great basketball player with a great IQ for the game. He likes to get his team involved but he scores the ball in bunches. He’s just an all-around player.”
He said that’s what he told Grant when the UD coached called him late in the recruiting cycle last spring.
Crutcher had decomitted from Tennessee-Chattanooga when the coach left.
“I like Grant,” Cowboy said. “When he was at Alabama, he recruited one of my other former players Tarik Black, who’s now with the Houston Rockets.
When he called this time, I told him Jalen might be a great for him. He brought Jalen in to visit Dayton and Jalen fell in love.”
Darrell Davis is glad that happened:
“Crutcher is a tremendous, tremendous freshman. He’s someone who can come in and orchestrate the offense and play defense too. I like him a lot.”
For Grant there was no déjà vu moment Sunday.
In his 1986-87 senior season, the Flyers came from 20 down at the half to knock off UC, 67-64, in front of a sold-out crowd of 13,511. Grant was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder that season, but he drew a blank Sunday night when he was asked about that history-making turnaround.
“I don’t remember that,” he said, then managed a smile. “How’d I play?”
You can bet he played better than his team did in the first half Sunday. The Flyers had a whopping 16 first-half turnovers and 26 for the game.
Antetokounmpo was again in instant foul trouble. He had three in the first 8 ½ minutes of the game. When he returned in the second half it took 109 seconds to get his fourth.
Cunningham had three fouls in the first 13 ½ minutes of the game too. And that caused Grant to insert 6-foot-11 freshman Jordan Pierce into the game for the first time all year.
He played the final 3:20 of the first half and had no miscues.
“Our problems weren’t necessarily anything Mississippi State was doing,” Grant said. “The reason we were down double digits was self-inflicted wounds – turnovers, silly fouls, wasted possessions.”
Three key players – Antetokounmpo, fellow starter Trey Landers and freshman guard Jordan Davis combined for two points.
The Flyers did get a yeoman’s effort from Darrell Davis, who played 38 minutes and had his first ever double-double – 17 points and 10 rebounds. Cunningham added 16 points and eight boards.
Grant said he was “proud” of his team’s second-half effort and he supported Davis’s attempt at the end of the game:
“I trust Darrell and will live with him. At the end of the game with him isolated like that I feel good about his opportunity to either get to the basket and get a shot or make a play for the team.
“Unfortunately, tonight it didn’t go his way. But you have to be willing to put yourself out there. You have to be willing to fail.
“He wanted the ball in his hands and at some point during the year, another opportunity will come and I’m confident he will come through for us.”