Archdeacon: Layfield’s can-do spirit elevates Dayton Flyers

After the game, JaVonna Layfield gave me an upraised middle finger.

But it’s not what you think.

• Yes, it was meant for all those — including herself early in her University of Dayton career — who thought she couldn’t cut it at UD. That she wasn’t college material in the classroom, wouldn’t excel on the court of an upper-tier Division I program and wouldn’t adjust to the expectations and culture of a well-established program.

• And, yes, it was for those who had pulled their scholarship offers, writing her off as damaged goods coming out of Ballard High School in Louisville following serious knee and leg injuries and the ensuing surgeries that had cut short her sophomore and junior seasons.

• Finally, it was meant for those who thought she couldn’t shoot from afar and, at 5-foot-10, wasn’t big enough to play inside and make an impact.

So that’s what prompted Layfield to hold up her left hand and extend her middle finger as she stood in a Donoher Center hallway outside the team dressing room Wednesday night following the Flyers’ 80-59 victory over St. Bonaventure at UD Arena.

It wasn’t meant as an obscene gesture.

She wanted me to see the two words she has tattooed on the inside of her middle finger:

“I Can.”

The message was prompted by the unwavering support she got from her mom, Shanneca O’Bannon, when she first got to UD, and it was especially inspired by the ongoing guidance she’s received from Dr. Rebecca “Becky” Cook, the director of the counseling center at UD and an end-of-the-bench fixture with the UD women’s hoops team.

“I Can” is a visual reminder for the Flyers senior guard that she can make it. That she can succeed and, when it comes to basketball, be “a special player,” as Flyers coach Shauna Green said.

With an impish grin, Layfield added: “Yeah, it means I can…and, also, screw anybody who thinks I can’t.”

And there certainly were no doubters Wednesday.

“Look right across the board at her stat sheet,” Green marveled as she perused the box score on the postgame report she’d been handed. “Sixteen rebounds, 12 points, eight assists, just one turnover, two blocked shots and a steal.

“She just does so much for us. She’s the one person I have to have on the floor.”

That’s especially been the case of late since the injury-plagued Flyers have been reduced to seven players — six on scholarship and a walk-on — for some games and a still-thin roster of eight on Wednesday.

Four seasons ago a lot was made of that same scenario when the Flyers men’s team was reduced to six scholarship players and walk-on Bobby Wehrli.

The UD women have gotten less fanfare for their short-handed efforts, but they’ve been just as successful as that 2014-15 men’s team.

Wednesday’s victory made the Flyers 11-4 overall and 4-0 in the Atlantic 10.

A big part of that success has been Layfield. The gaudy numbers against the Bonnies were not an aberration.

She opened the season with 22 rebounds and 20 points against Harvard. On New Year’s Eve, she had 24 rebounds and 12 points against LaSalle.

She’s averaging 12 rebounds and 11.1 points per game and is third in the A-10 in rebounding and fourth in field-goal percentage. She leads the Flyers in steals and rebounds, is tied for second in blocked shots and is fourth in scoring.

“You just can’t pigeon hole her in one area,” Green said. “She can fill up the stat sheet.

“I preach all the time that we’re not going to make every shot. We’re not going to be perfect in everything, but there are things we can control. Things like how hard we play, our attitude, our energy and the heart and passion we show.

“Those are the things we try to embody and JaVonna Layfield does that.”

“She’s all heart and passion.”

Struggled at first

Layfield admitted it did take a while for her to get comfortable at UD. She played sparingly as a freshman and found herself unsure of herself off the court.

“To be completely honest, I did wonder if this was the place for me,” she said. “I was struggling to find who I was. I struggled academically, struggled internally. I kind of lost confidence.

“But my mom was a stickler. She said, ‘You are not going to quit. You are not going to lose faith in yourself. You’ve been through too much. Keep praying. Keep working hard. Everything will finally fall into place.”

At the same time, she said Dr. Cook played a huge role in her adjustment:

“She’s a sports psychologist and she helps a lot of us. She helped me realize who I am. We had lots of meetings. She gave me lots of reminders. We gave (the team) little sayings and we have a special handshake where we point index fingers at each other. And she’s the reason I got “I Can” tattooed on my finger.”

She said she also learned a lot from former players and the bond she has with her roommate, fellow senior Jenna Burdette: “She’s my sister.”

Then there was her close pal, the late Flyers big man Steve McElvene, who died at age 20 of a heart issue in May 2016.

The two had hung out together all the time, their joyous, effervescent personalities playing off each other. His death hit her hard and since has brought about the ink work on the inside of her upper left arm.

She turned her arm and managed a faint smile: “It says ‘You and I will always be…Steven Jermaine McElvene.’ ”

She dedicated last season to him and in the words of Green, “She just exploded into the type of player I knew she could be.”

She started all 32 games for the Flyers and said, “I feel like I’ve finally found my niche in this program.”

The way she sees it, “My job is to play defense and rebound. And if I lock in on the ball and say I’m gonna get it, then one way or another I’m gonna get it.”

A perfect example of that came early in the second quarter Wednesday.

When Burdette missed a 3-point shot, Layfield out-battled a bigger, better-positioned Bonnies player for the rebound and then quickly flicked a pass to Jayla Scaife, who made a 3 and was fouled.

Although Scaife missed the free throw, Layfield got the rebound and put it back up for a basket.

Because of her, UD had a quick five points, took the lead and never relinquished it.

“When she plays like that we’re usually successful,” Green said. “The rest of our team feeds off her.”

Big fan club

“UD has been a great place for me,” Layfield said. “I’ve worked on different life skills, learned from my mistakes and grown tremendously as a young woman. If you saw the 18-year-old JaVonna versus the 21-year-old, you’d be like ‘Whoa!’ ”

After Wednesday’s game, you saw a lot of people who liked what they saw in her.

Pressed up against the railing along the players’ tunnel were several UD students, her friends, clamoring for a look, a photo, a slap of palms. Up in the stands were her beaming grandparents who had made the drive from Louisville.

Later, she figured she’d get an “atta-girl” from her uncle, Larry O’Bannon, the former University of Louisville star who’s had a long pro career overseas and is currently playing in Argentina.

“He watches my games when he can and we FaceTime a lot.”

And before the night was over, she thought she would get a call from Darius, her 13-year-old foster brother and biggest fan:

“He’s like, ’I saw you hit that shot! I saw you get that block! You had how many rebounds? Dang!’

“Yeah, I’m pretty big-time when it comes to Darius.”

And it’s no different here.

Like Shauna Green said: “She does everything for us now.”

And all it took was one finger and two words:

“I Can.”

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