Dayton junior Jenna Burdette stood near midcourt and raised her arms, and the Flyers bench went crazy as Kelley Austria hit a 3-pointer with 3:18 left to give her team a 66-52 lead.
The top-seeded Flyers, who trailed by nine points in the first quarter, toughened up their defense after that and defeated No. 7 seed Duquesne 70-56 on Sunday before 3,166 fans at the Richmond Coliseum to clinch a berth in the NCAA tournament.
“I felt like that was the dagger. I’m really glad it was Kelley,” said Burdette, named the tournament Most Valuable Player.
Austria, who had a game-high 20 points, missed the tournament last season due to a knee injury.
“We are going to win this,” she told herself after the late 3-pointer Sunday.
The Dukes (18-15), the first No. 7 seed to ever make the title game, had upset No. 2 seed George Washington and No. 3 seed Saint Joseph to reach the championship. But there would be no upset of UD (22-9), which won its first conference title since 2012 after finishing eighth last season.
Burdette, wearing a brace on her right knee, did not play the last time the teams met in February due to a leg injury. After missing five games she returned for the regular-season finale against Saint Louis, then helped UD win three games in three days in Richmond.
“It is indescribable. We had two goals at the beginning of the season: the regular-season title and the tournament title,” Burdette said. “It is just nice to get it done after the season we had last year.”
UD’s JaVonna Layfield added 15 points and nine rebounds, Saicha Grant-Allen had 14 points and 11 boards, reserve Jayla Scaife had 11 points and Burdette had six points and eight assists. The Flyers had just five turnovers with 18 assists and won the battle of the boards 42-33.
“It’s great to leave on a great note, being a senior,” said Grant-Allen, surrounded by confetti at the center of the court after helping to cut down the net.
Burdette was named tournament MVP and was joined on the all-tourney team by Austria and Grant-Allen.
The Dukes were paced by reserve Kadri-Ann Lass with 19 points. Duquesne scored 22 points in the first quarter and first-year UD coach Shauna Green said her team made some adjustments at halftime.
“We tightened up on our ball screens,” Green said.
UD was 14-15 last season under veteran head coach Jim Jabir, who resigned due to health reasons just before this season began.
A turning point came during a meeting after a Dec. 9 game against Toledo. That came during a layoff before the Flyers played Dec. 20 against Texas A&M.
“As I learned our team, I saw our personnel and changed our offense,” said Green, standing on the court nearly one hour after Sunday’s game. “We had a team meeting and talked nothing about basketball for four hours.”
That may be one reason the Flyers didn’t panic after trailing by nine early Sunday.
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The Flyers were behind 22-16 going into the second quarter as Amadea Szamosi had seven of her 12 points for the Dukes.
The Flyers took the lead at 30-29 as Burdette scored on a layup with 1:41 left in the second quarter. UD led 32-29 at halftime as reserve Scaife had nine points.
UD took a 38-30 lead on a layup by Layfield with 6:56 left in the third quarter. Austria hit a 3-pointer in front of her bench to make it 43-32 with 4:28 left in the stanza, setting the stage for her fourth quarter heroics.
“Kelley really came back from that injury. She has been huge,” Green said. “With Jenna, it made our team stronger through her absence. She is the engine of this team. She doesn’t necessarily have to score.”
It was the fifth title appearance for UD in the past seven years, but the Flyers lost in the championship game in 2011, 2014 and 2015. The last conference tourney title for UD was in 2012 with a win against St. Bonaventure.
It’s the seventh NCAA Tournament appearance for Dayton, all since 2010. The Flyers missed the tournament last season, breaking a streak of six straight appearances. The tournament selection show is at 7 p.m. Monday, March 13.