The season ended as it began for the Dayton Flyers — with everything hanging on a lob pass to Josh Cunningham.
Four months after Xeyrius Williams found Cunningham under the basket for a buzzer-beating shot in a victory against Ball State in coach Anthony Grant’s first game, Jalen Crutcher lofted a pass to Cunningham. The Flyers trailed Virginia Commonwealth 72-70 with 34 seconds to play. Cunningham caught the ball but had it stripped away by Mike’l Simms.
VCU’s Malik Crowfield grabbed the loose ball. Then the Rams secured a 77-72 victory in the second round of the Atlantic 10 tournament with four free throws in the final 20 seconds.
With that, Dayton’s slim chance of extending its streaks of 11 straight winning seasons and four straight NCAA tournament appearances ended. The Flyers finished 14-17, the same record they had in 2005-06, the last time they had a losing season. It’s Dayton’s second losing season in the last 19 years.
Senior guard Darrell Davis, the last remaining Flyer who had played in a NCAA tournament victory, left the court for the final time with hopes that better days lie ahead for his program.
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Davis planned to get on the bus after the game and talk to his younger teammates, telling them, “You guys, don’t worry about anything. You’ve got a great backcourt coming in. You’ve got a great nucleus. You’re going to be a good team in these years to come. Just stay focused and keep working.”
Here are three takeaways from the game:
1. Late collapse: Dayton took its largest lead, 70-65, on a basket by Trey Landers with 3:16 to play. On the next two possessions, the offensive looked tentative, and Kostas Antetokounmpo and Crutcher missed desperate shots with the shot clock expiring.
Meanwhile, VCU surged ahead with a 3-pointer by De’Riante Jenkins, a layup by Isaac Vann and finally a tough jump shot in traffic by Jonathan Williams with 56 seconds to go.
The lob pass to Cunningham followed the go-ahead shot by Williams.
“One of the shot clock violations, we were disjointed offensively,” Grant said. “Ended up with a fadeaway shot on the baseline that just was a bad offensive possession. The other one, VCU did a good job defensively.”
2. Clutch shots: Dayton did a better job against VCU star Justin Tillman, who scored 37 points in the last game against Dayton and 15 in this one. However, Jenkins, Vann and Williams — the three players who hit the big shots in the 7-0 run that won the game — all scored in double figures. They combined for 35 points.
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VCU (18-14) improved to 13-4 in six A-10 tournament appearances. It has played in the championship game in each of the previous five seasons but will have to get by No. 1 seed Rhode Island in the quarterfinals Friday to keep its title hopes alive.
“I thought the spirit of our team the last few minutes of the game, even though we were down, sort of told the story to me,” said VCU coach Mike Rhoades, whose team beat Dayton twice after losing 106-79 at UD Arena in January. “The guys, they believe they are going to win. I told them in the one time-out at the end, get three stops and we’ll win the game, and it was maybe the three best stops of the season. Our defense won it for us down the stretch.”
One last Joey Gruden photo for the Twitter history book. pic.twitter.com/ulJeqWPHBH— David Jablonski (@DavidPJablonski) March 8, 2018
3. Shooting struggles: Dayton committed only 10 turnovers and made 13 of 16 free throws. It even won the rebounding battle, 37-30. The Flyers lost the game by shooting 42.9 percent from the field (27 of 63) and 23.8 percent from 3-point range (5 of 21).
Trey Landers led Dayton with 19 points. Cunningham scored 17. Davis scored 14 points, finishing his career with 1,008 points.
Dayton overcame a 10-point deficit in the second half, but the offensive struggles that plagued it in the first half came back in the final minutes.
“I feel like we got a lot of clean looks, especially in the first half,” Landers said. “We just didn’t hit the shots. Second half was pretty much more of the same thing. We’re an inside-out team, especially when you have a guy as dominant as Josh — him being able to pass the ball, moving around him. I feel like we got a little stagnant the second half but at the end of the day, I feel like we had a lot of clean looks.”