The UD Flyers delighted a record-breaking crowd with a revved-up performance on senior night to beat VCU for the outright A-10 title.
DAYTON — The Adversity of Dayton basketball Flyers, fighting terrible twists and turns all season, accomplished what nobody but themselves believed they could do — win the Atlantic 10 championship.
Talk about ‘A Band of Brothers.’
With a hand-to-hand combat win over Virginia Commonwealth University Wednesday night in UD Arena, 79-72, the Flyers clinched the outright championship and the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament in Pittsburgh.
And it was oh-so-apropos that it was Coach Archie Miller, high above the floor on a ladder, cutting down the nets for he was the Fearless Leader who kept this True Team focused on one goal, winning game-by-game, despite enough obstacles to stop a runaway gasoline truck.
It began when center Steve McElvene died last May of heart failure. It continued when Kendall Pollard couldn’t play early in the season with a hip injury. It magnified when Josh Cunningham missed 21 games after tearing a ligament in his left ankle late in the third game of the season.
Then starters Charles Cooke and Kyle Davis missed time with an assortment of aches, pains and sniffles. Even Scoochie Smith, the engine that ignites the team, missed one game, a loss.
Even though at times the team seemed to be held together with bailing wire, duct tape and prayer, they found ways, always found a way, to keep the train on the tracks, except one misstep at Massachusetts, their only bad loss of the season.
They are 24-and-5 overall and 15-and-2 in the A10 with one regular season game remaining, Saturday at George Washington.
“Our team, and who we are right now, has learned how to do it a certain way,” said Miller. That way is all-for-one and one-for-all, no matter what potholes they have to leap.
“From where we started, if you take it all the way back to the end of the semester last May, when Steve passed away, to watch us deal with the adversity that we’ve dealt with, this is about as proud of a group of kids as you can be because of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Miller added.
“It’s fitting to have it ending this way, but it wasn’t easy and that’s one of the reasons they were able to do it. They’ve never taken a day off and never had their heads in the clouds. They approach things the right way and they are as tough-mind a group of kids as you’ll see,” Miller continued.
Of his trip to the top of the ladder to cut down the championship nets, Miller said, “For me to climb up the ladder I felt great humility. When I got the job we talked a lot about what it would feel like to win a championship here. And to do it outright this year, instead of sharing it like last year, is even more special.”
It wasn’t easy accomplishing it Wednesday night against a physically rough-and-tumble VCU. The three officials left the building out of breath, not from running the floor, but from blowing their whistles 46 times.
And it put the Flyers in a bind because the front line of Kendall Pollard, Xeyrius Williams and Ryan Mikesell were foul-strapped — all four saddled with four fouls that limited their playing time to 17 minutes for Pollard, 10 minutes for Williams and 17 minutes for Mikesell.
The Flyers, though, wouldn’t let a little thing like that stop them. It was Senior Night and the four seniors did what seniors are supposed to do.
Charles Cooke, Scoochie Smith, Kyle Davis and Kendall Pollard combined for 63 points, 20 rebounds and 14 assists, with sophomore Josh Cunningham coming off the bench to 10 score points and grab four rebounds in 27 minutes — and he, too, was hog-collared with four fouls.
Cooke and Smith scored 20 while Kyle Davis added 12 and Pollard 11.
“Josh Cunningham really saved us,” said Miller. “With Pollard out (with fouls) we needed a physical approach and Josh did an excellent job. We were able to play Kendall and Josh together tonight at times (for the first time this season) and it was our most productive lineup. That’s something moving forward we’ll be able to continue to use.
The Flyers never trailed and the last tie was at 8-8 five minutes into the game. And UD constructed a 65-51 lead with 11 minutes left.
VCU then turned to 6-7 senior forward Mo Alie-Cox, who is built like a heavyweight fighter and played the second half like a heavyweight champion.
He scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half, mostly charging the basket like an angry bull. He scored 10 of VCU’s first 11 points in the second half and the Rams began chipping away.
The Rams were within two at 73-71 with 3:09 left. Alie-Cox missed a jumper and Cunningham tore a rebound away despite being surrounded by three black-clad VCUers.
Then VCU had the ball with a two-point deficit, 74-72, but Kyle Davis stole the ball, rebounded a missed VCU shot and then made two free throws at 0:16 to seal it.
Three seniors — Davis 2 for 2, Pollard 2 for 2 and Scoochie Smith 1 for 2 — made five of six free throws in the final 16 seconds to nail it.
Smith’s miss was the last free throw of the game and he said, “I wish I had made that last free throw so we all three could have got subbed out at the same time (to receive a probable standing ovation). I just thank the Flyer Faithful and my teammates for the past four years, an amazing journey.”
The victory Wednesday was the 102nd for Smith, Kyle Davis and Kendall Pollard, a school record, and Smith is the only one to play in all 102 victories. Senior Charles Cooke transferred in from James Madison and played the last two seasons.
Because the four seniors hesitated to climb the ladder, the impatient Miller ascended the ladder to cut the net.
“Coach is an impatient guy at times,” said Smith. “Me, Kyle and Kendall didn’t get to cut down the nets, but we’ll cut some down in about two weeks (at the conference tournament).”