They’re recognized as an NCAA Tournament team, but Saturday they showed themselves to be some savvy Girl Scouts, too.
The Dayton Flyers women know how to build quite a fire.
In the first 8 ½ minutes of their tournament opener against Tennessee at the KFC Yum! Center, UD missed 14 of its first 15 shots, turned the ball over three times, had starting center Saicha Grant-Allen in foul trouble and trailed, 18-4.
About then, coach Shauna Green huddled her team, made some wholesale substitutions, reminded her players of a season-long mantra and then sat back and watched the fireworks.
“All year Coach Green has talked about putting logs on the fire,” said freshman forward Jordan Wilmoth, one of the subs pressed into action. “Anyone who comes off the bench is supposed to bring energy. You get stops, get rebounds, take open shots. You attack, attack, attack. You keep that fire going.”
And that’s just what happened.
In the second quarter the Flyers outscored the Volunteers 20-9 to tie it 29-29 at the half. And early in the third quarter UD took the lead a couple of times.
“That kind of has been our motto all year — just add to the fire,” Green said. “Whoever comes in, you add fuel to the fire to make it burn bigger and brighter and stronger.”
Unfortunately for UD, the Volunteers had hot-shooting guard Diamond DeShields, the daughter of former Dayton Dragons manager Delino DeShields, and twin-tower rebounders, 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell and 6-3 Schaquiila Nunn, and they combined to douse enough of the fire and lead the Volunteeers to a 66-57 victory.
For the Volunteers, who have won eight national titles but are 20-11 this season, it was their 124th NCAA Tournament victory.
When the Flyers walked off the court, they waved to their fans and got a warm response, especially the four seniors — Kelley Austria, Grant-Allen, Andrijana Cvitkovic and Christy Macioce — who had just played their final game for UD.
They had left quite a legacy — four postseason appearances in four years, including three trips to NCAA Tournament and one berth in the Elite Eight. For Austria, a fifth-year senior due to a medical redshirt season, she had been part of another NCAA Tournament team, as well.
And this year the seniors helped provide the backbone through a series of setbacks. First veteran coach Jim Jabir resigned suddenly in September. Then Madeline Blais, 1,100-point transfer from Marist, was lost for the year due to medical issues, the team started 3-6 and point guard Jenna Burdette was lost for several games late in the season due to injury.
The Flyers endured, shared the Atlantic 10 regular season crown, won the A-10 Tournament and advanced to their seventh NCAA Tournament appearance in the past eight years.
With such resolve, many of Flyers — who ended the season 22-10 — said that while they had grown up following the storied Tennessee program, they were not cowed by the name or reputation.
“They were my No. 1 team from the get-go,” said Wilmoth. “I watched them from the time I was about seven. Candace Parker is one of my favorite players all time, but today their name wasn’t something that got to us. It was just another team we were playing.”
Burdette agreed: “Every little girl was a Candace Parker and (Coach) Pat Summitt fan, but I don’t think that had anything to do with our start. Our shots didn’t fall and we let the pressure of that get to us for a while.”
JaVonna Layfield — the Louisville schoolgirl who was a Miss Kentucky Basketball finalist and had some 40 followers in the stands and a grandma who wanted to have the whole team over for dinner afterward — said she grew up wanting to play for Tennessee and was even invited to some of the camps of the Volunteers late Hall of Fame coach.
“I was a huge Pat Summitt fan,” Layfield said. “I grew up idolizing her and when she passed, I cried like I had played for her. It broke my heart.
“But none of that mattered today. It’s not like we were playing them down in Knoxville. We weren’t playing them on Pat Summitt Court and seeing a whole gym full of orange. Our nerves came because our shots didn’t fall early and people started to rush themselves. Once we calmed down, you saw what we could do.”
The Flyers have played several prominent teams the past few years and beaten many of them.
“We’ve played enough big-name teams and been in big-time situations,” Green said. “We’ve been in several NCAA Tournaments, played UConn (this year and in the Elite Eight), beat Louisville and Kentucky and Iowa State at neutral sites. I can’t get into everyone’s mind, but I don’t think that was it. I just think it was their length and athleticism at first and we had to adjust.”
Similar to the UD men’s loss to Wichita State in their NCAA Tournament game in Indianapolis on Friday night, a couple of usually steady starters for the UD women struggled with their shot.
With the Flyer men it was Charles Cooke and Xeyrius Williams, who combined for 2-for-19 shooting. For the UD women it was their two leading scorers this season. Against the Vols, Burdette went 3 for 15 and Austria 4 for 11.
But with the stars struggling offensively and the foul trouble, it was a pair of freshmen off the bench who shined.
Wilmoth scored seven points in 14 minutes and would have done more but she was sidelined much of the game after tangling with a Tennessee player, who crashed down on her right knee.
Fellow freshman Jayla Scaife had six points, a steal and an assist in 10 minutes.
“That part of it was exciting,” said Grant-Allen. “Those are the same people who are going to play next year. They’re the new building blocks for the program.”
And that’s what Green emphasized following the loss:
“After the game — after thanking the seniors — I told the young kids, ‘You got a taste of this now. You know you’re capable of playing against the best. I hope this motivates you in the offseason.”
Alex Harris, the redshirt junior who began her career at Penn State and Saturday led the Flyers with 14 rebounds and 10 points, thinks it will:
“I’m sad that it ended for our seniors. They paved the way for us. But I think we’ll be ready to go next year and make our own stand. We have a Dayton mentality. We know who we are.”
They are an NCAA Tournament team.
And some savvy Girl Scouts, too.