UD’s Flyers looked down and defeated, trailing mid-major University of Illinois-Chicago by nine points with 10 minutes left. But a raucous home crowd gave them a lift, and a push across the finish line for a ten-point win in the season opener.
DAYTON — The University of Dayton’s basketball season was on the brink of going down in Flames on the first night of the season.
It would have been bad enough to lose the 2021-22 opener at UD Arena to the University of Illinois. But this wasn’t the University of Illinois. It was the University of Illinois with a hypen and a Chicago tacked on: The University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC.)
And the crowd won it. Yes, the Flyer Faithful won it. Their high-decibel explosion was like sticking a firecracker between the Flyers’ legs.
UD coach Anthony Grant plus players R.J. Blakney and Toumani Camara would like to give every fan a game ball for their help in the 64-54 UD victory.
For 30 minutes, the crowd acted as if it was attending a grand opera, Aida perhaps or Les Huguenots. Just some polite applause. The only thing missing was opera glasses.
They watched dumbfounded and stupefied as UIC outscored the Flyers 19-2 at the end of the first half to lead at intermission, 32-25.
And it was more of the same to start the second half and the Flames burned brightly to take a 46-37 lead with 10 1/2 minutes left.
Then. . .Camara scored underneath. At the time, the Flyers were 1 for 11 from three-point territory.
Kobe Elvis hit a three, the second and last UD three-pointer, but the crowd erupted, a roof-raising ruckus and ignited the Flyers and snuffed the Flames.
Urged onward and upward by the relentless crowd howling, the Flyers put on a 19-0 run from 10:30 to 4:00 left. The Flyers owned a 56-46 lead and maintained the advantage the rest of the way.
The Flames did creep to within 56-51, but Camara drove the basket and completed a three-point play. Then he took a pass under the hoop and stuffed it home, stuffing UIC’s last gasp, pushing the Flyers in front, 62-51 in the final minute.
Camara led the Flyers with 15 points and 10 rebounds. The only other Flyers in double figures was Kobe Elvis with 10, while Blakney had nine and a nine-inch smile after the game.
Asked about what happened to spark the late-game surge, Blakney said, “I think everybody knew what happened. The fans, man. The fans definitely helped us. The fans were so loud, we weren’t even tired any more. Whatever tiredness we had, it was gone. The fans really helped us and we played hard from then on.”
For most of the Flyers, it was their first experience with the Flyer Faithful Factor. Those that were with the last year played in a near-empty UD Arena under pandemic protocols.
“We definitely missed these fans last year, definitely missed them,” said Blakney. “It was fun. All the guys said it was fun. It was electric. It was everything.”
Camara, a transfer from Georgia, a big-time program in the Southeastern Conference, experienced large and loud home support.
“But nothing like this,” he said. “What the crowd did was huge. They really helped us. Their energy was crazy. I’ve never been in an environment like that. I can’t wait to play for them all year.
“They really helped us and you can feel it on the court,” he added. “It was like an extra boost of energy.”
And does it affect the other team negatively?
“For sure,” said Camara. “When you are away, you aren’t in your own environment and you play against fans that’s loud like that? It’s double the pressure.”
“It was awesome to have the Arena full and the impact the crowd had on the game was huge,” he said. “We’re very grateful to have the experience that we had today.”
The game bordered on bizarre. The Flyer jumped to a 23-13 lead, Then UIC put on that 19-2 run to end the half with a 32-25 lead.
The Flyers pulled to within 34-33 early in the second half only to watch the Flames go on a 10-2 splurge and build a 44-35 lead.
All seemed lost, all seemed hopeless. It was time for the fans to answer the team’s 9-1-1 call and go on the 19-0 run.
“The game was kind of choppy,” said Grant. “The first 12 minutes we did a really good job of understanding what we had to do.
“We built a 10-point lead (23-13) and hit a lull offensively,” he said. “We missed some layups, missed some open shots, missed free throws. You see this with a young team. Sometimes they let what happens on the offensive end affect what goes on on the defensive end.
“That’s the tale of the last seven or eight minutes of the half (UIC’s 19-2 run),” Grant added. “They went on a run like a good team will do. Basketball is a game of runs.
“At halftime our emphasis was on making sure that we matured from the first half, to take care of what we needed to do on the defensive end,” he said. “Offensively, we had to find a rhythm. And that rhythm came from being able to go inside (mostly to Camara, but also to Daron Holmes II, who had nine points). And we were able to get to the free throw line.”
Indeed. The Flyers shot 23 free throws and made 14. The Flames had no clue what that line on the floor 15 feet from the basket was for. They shot only two free throws, none until 3 1/2 minutes remained in the game.
The Flyers, the second youngest team in Division I basketball, stared adversity in the face and stuck out their tongues at it.
“That was a great thing,” said Blakney. “That’s a good sign that we can handle adversity and bounce back from all the bumps in the road. We just have to continue to do that. There is going to be more times when we’re down. We just have to keep fighting.”
And hope that the Flyer Faithful doesn’t come down with Group Laryngitis.