The last thing the Dayton Flyers needed on the eve of their season opener was an injury. The one player they couldn’t afford to lose was redshirt senior forward Josh Cunningham, their leading returning scorer and three-time captain.
About ninety minutes before the first game of the season Wednesday, however, Dayton announced Cunningham would not play against North Florida. He suffered a right hand injury in practice a day earlier. A team that will have a short bench all season — it has nine scholarship players — opened the season with eight players, half of whom had never played for the Flyers.
» PHOTO GALLERY: Dayton vs. North Florida
While fans started cursing their luck on Twitter, Dayton refused to let Cunningham’s injury affect them. Redshirt freshman Obi Toppin stepped into the starting lineup for Cunningham and helped lead the Flyers to a 78-70 victory against North Florida at UD Arena.
“I’m very, very proud of the effort we got out of our guys tonight,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “Obviously, Josh was unavailable tonight, and I thought our guys really stepped up to the challenge and the opportunity.”
Here are five takeaways from the first game of Dayton’s 114th season:
1. A star was born: Obi Toppin waited 17 months to play his first regular-season game. That’s how long he’s been on Dayton’s campus. He made the most of his season away from action, and it showed in his first game.
Toppin dunked to score the first basket of the season and added three more dunks in the first half. He finished with a team-high 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting. He added 10 rebounds in 27 minutes.
Toppin’s performance didn’t surprise his teammates.
“I see it every day in practice,” sophomore guard Jordan Davis said, “so I’m never really amazed. He’s just a pogo stick, always jumping.”
2. Cunningham’s absence may be short: Grant described Cunningham’s status as day-to-day. On WHIO Radio, Bucky Bockhorn said he talked to Cunningham, who said he thinks he can play Saturday. The Flyers play Coppin State in their second game.
3. Dayton limited turnovers: The Flyers turned the ball over six times, matching their season low of 2017-18 when turnovers were an issue all season. They had only eight turnovers Friday in an 89-71 exhibition victory against Capital.
“Our guys did a really good job taking care of the ball,” Grant said. “They threw a lot at us tonight. For a young team to go through a multitude of pick-and-roll coverages and zone, they did a good job of mixing their defenses up. We got into a rhythm and were able to push the pace and play at a tempo we want to play at. It’s an opportunity for us to evaluate and continue to get better. I felt we got better from our game on Friday.”
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4. Everyone who played contributed: Davis scored 16 points and made his only two 3-point attempts on back-to-back possessions early in the second half, turning a 49-45 lead into a 55-45 advantage. The lead stayed in double digits for most of the rest of the game.
Trey Landers scored 15 points. Ryan Mikesell, playing his first game since undergoing two hip surgeries in 2017, scored 12 points and added a team-high six assists.
Jalen Crutcher had nine points and four assists. Dwayne Cohill made his college debut with five points. Jhery Matos scored his three points at the free-throw line.
Dayton shot 43.3 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from 3-point range. It avoided a lull on offense until the final eight minutes when it scored six points, all at the free-throw line. Dayton made 21 of 27 free throws in the game (77.8 percent).
“I thought the last eight minutes or so we struggled a little bit,” Grant said. “Some of that had to do with being tired. A little fatigue set in, but our ball movement was really good. the pace we played at slowed down at the end, some of it on purpose.”
5. Dayton did a decent job on defense: North Florida shot 43.9 percent from the field, below its average of 45.6 last season. The Osprey made 8 of 21 3-pointers (38.1 percent), just above its average of last season (37.8).
The Flyers led 41-35 at halftime despite the Osprey making 6 of 15 3-pointers. North Florida made 2 of 6 3-pointers in the second half.
“The thing we talked about before the game with North Florida,” Grant said, “is they’re very dangerous team with the veterans they have, returning five starters, and the way they can shoot the ball. We knew the 3-point line would be really important. They hurt us some in the first half, but I think overall our guys did a really good job with the scouting report and being aware of the things we needed to take away from them.”