The Flyers complete a perfect conference schedule with an impressive second half against George Washington. Now all that remains is how high a seed can they earn in the NCAA tournament.
DAYTON — Dayton Strong? You want to talk about Dayton Strong? Maybe it was a coincidence, but who believes in coincidences when it comes to the University of Dayton basketball team.
The Flyers were en route to laying a rotten egg the size of a small bungalow Saturday night in UD Arena. They were gasping and choking for breath against a far inferior George Washington University team that resides in the depths of the Atlantic 10 standings.
The only two league wins Fordham recorded this year were against George Washington.
It looked as if, and felt as if, the Flyers were going to blow everything they’ve worked so hard to attain — a perfect Atlantic 10 record, a No. 3 ranking in the polls, a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, a 19-game winning streak, a school record for most wins in a season.
A weak George Washington was about to chop it all down with a hatchet. Remember that story? On this night, the Flyers were about to be the cherry tree.
The huffing and puffing Flyers led by two points, 35-33, with 15:52 left in the game. The Flyer Faithful were pleading for their guys to play defense and score some points. And Forde was wondering if he was about to write about a monumental upset.
“Wake up,” was a common crowd shout.
During a time out at that juncture, Jeremy Ganger walked to center court, wearing a ‘Dayton Strong’ t-shirt. He is the doorman at Ned Peppers who saved lives during the Oregon District mass shooting by slamming shut the front door and escorting patrons out the back door.
The Flyer Faithful gave him a full-lunged standing ovation.
From there, the Flyers wiped George Washington off the face of the basketball floor en route to a 76-51 victory.
It was 37-all with 13 1/2 minutes left when Obi Toppin and Jalen Crutcher went off like M80 rockets. The Flyers outscored GW in the final 13 1/2 minutes 39-14, an explosion that started with a 16-0 run that pushed the Flyers from 37-37 to 53-37.
It began with an Obi Toppin basket and an Obi Toppin dunk, one of seven dunks he performed on this night.
About that time, UD coach Anthony Grant called Jalen Crutcher aside to deliver a message. Crutcher then went back on the floor and scored 10 straight points in 2 1/2 minutes on a drive, a three, a drive and a three from the outskirts of Germantown.
“When Jalen is aggressive, it seems as if everybody else feeds off it,” said coach Anthony Grant. “He has an ability to really get things going for us in a lot of different ways. He did that tonight.”
It was 49-37 and it was Obi Toppin Show Time.
He stuffed one at 9:02. He stuffed another one at 8:33. Then the show-stopper. He did something he promised Grant he would never do again. Last year in a tight game he swung the ball between his legs on his way up for a dunk.
With the Flyer up 51-37, Toppin broke loose on a fast break and did it again — through his legs, over his head and smash-jam through the hoop. It rocked the house and all SI writer Forde could say was, “Oh, my! Oh, my!”
It was Toppin’s third dunk in about 2 1/2 minutes.
“That run, five or six straight plays, between Jalen’s explosiveness and the way we were playing defense. . .the way Rodney Chatman single-handedly wrecked everything they were trying to do. . .and then Obi’s explosion — that was as good a basketball as. . .just unbelievable,” said Grant.
When the horn sounded and the Flyers were winners by 25 points, Toppin had 27 points (11 for 15, seven dunks), five rebounds and five assists. Crutcher had 21 points (5 for 8 from three) and five assists.
It was Senior Night for Trey Landers and Ryan Mikesell, seemingly too high-strung and emotional about their last home game to score. Landers had only three points, but 10 rebounds. Mikesell had only four points, but made the last shot he took in UD Arena, a three-pointer with 2 1/2 minutes left.
So all was saved. The Flyers finished a perfect 18-and-0 in the Atlantic 10. They extended their winning streak to 20 straight. With 29 victories, they set a school record for wins in a season. And with San Diego State losing, the Flyers can lay claim to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, if all goes well in the Atlantic 10 tournament next week.
After the game, Grant grabbed the microphone to thank the fans. Then seniors Landers and Mikesell (actually a grad student) addressed the crowd. Their off-the-cuff remarks, mostly thanking everybody including their teammates Toppin and Crutcher stood aside with tears streaming down their cheeks.
The Atlantic 10 championship trophy, presented by commissioner Bernadette McGlade, was held high. And then the nets were cut down.
It was an awesome post-game, filled with celebratory moments, but then Grant reminded one-and-all.
“It is not our last game,” he said. “We have a lot more to do. We’ve run the gauntlet, 18 (league) games and each had a life of its own, it terms of challenges.
“Eighteen-and-oh,” he said. “We went 18-and-0 and it was hard. Just think about some of the games we had to battle through. We have to persevere and overcome. It was really, really hard.”
And now it gets even harder. But as everybody who watches this team says, “They are terrific. They are fun to watch. They are for real. They play so well together. They like each other. They share the ball. Like Jeremy Ganger, they are ‘Dayton Strong.’”
And Obi? Dunk, Obi, dunk.