After winning the first two games of the Charleston Classic over the SEC’s LSU and the Big East’s St. John’s, the University of Dayton basketball team ran into the Big 12’s Houston Cougars, the No. 6 team in all the land, and absorbed a 69-55 lesson.
Charleston, SC — The University of Dayton is the only school to bring a basketball team, a 29-member pep band, 12 cheerleaders, a mascot, two athletic trainers, an academic adviser and 3,000 fans to the Charleston Classic.
Unfortunately, the entourage was not enough for the Flyers to win the championship Sunday night in TD Arena.
The Flyers ran into a combination hurricane, earthquake and mud slide in the finals in the form of the University of Houston.
Houston, the AP’s No. 6 team and No. 1 on the KenPom website, took apart the Flyers, 69-55.
And it was over shortly after referee Ron Groover tossed up the ball to begin play. . .and it quickly took the Flyer Faithful out of the equation.
Silence, in this case, was not golden. But the quicker, faster, stronger Cougars enforced their will early and never let up, never even let the Flyers cry uncle.
It was not just a matter of the Flyers having no answers, mostly they didn’t even know the questions.
Houston compiled leads of 14-4, 19-8 and 30-18. And they commandeered the backboards as if they were their personal playground.
“We played against one of the best rebounding teams in LSU and one of the best rebounding teams in St. John’s,” said Flyer coach Anthony Grant. “But these guys (Houston) are different with their tenacity and ability to create second shots (and third and fourth).”
The Flyers are now 3-2 and their other loss came at Northwestern, mostly because Northwestern captured the offensive glass.
It was worse against Houston. The Cougars had 11 offensive rebounds by halftime and finished the game with 17. Many times Houston had three and four shots a possession, playing a personal game of keep away.
On the other end, the Flyers were one-and-done, losing the rebound skirmish 38-28.
So the Flyers have had a dose of competition from the Big Ten (a loss to Northwestern), the SEC (a win over LSU), the Big East (a win over St. John’s) and the Big 12 (a loss to Houston).
“We knew coming in, they were the No. 1 defensive team in the country,” said Grant. “Their defense caused problems, especially in the first half. They are terrific in transition, their defense creates their offense.”
Houston’s lead stretched to 20 six minutes into the second half, 50-30, but the band played on. And the cheerleaders cheered on, but Houston was a troupe of highly-skilled pick pockets with hands quicker than a humming bird’s wings.
“Overall, I thought our guys competed their tails off,” said Grant. “You want to win the game, but at this stage, five games into the season, I want to learn about our group and I like what I’m learning. I think we have a chance to move forward in a really, really good direction.”
And what has he learned during the three-game tournament that produced wins over LSU and St. John’s before the Houston mishap?
“When we played LSU we knew there were some things we had to do to win and rebounding was one of them,” said Grant. “They got us in a hole (15 points down), then the way our guys were able to come back. It showed a level of resiliency.
“Then with St. John’s, their players are really talented and to be able to get that win gave our guys a level of confidence,” he said. “We’ve tested ourselves against some of the best teams in the country. You can’t help but learn who you are. And you know what you need to get better at.”
Only two Flyers hit double figures — DaRon Holmes II with 16 and Nate Santos with 14, but he scored 13 in the first half and one in the second half.
Starting point guard JaVon Bennett endured an ugly night – 1 for 10 that included 0 for 7 from three.
His counterpart, Jamal Shead, came into the game averaging 7.0 points for the 6-0 Cougars. But he scored seven of his team’s first nine points in the first four minutes and finished with 16.
The Flyers brightest spots shned off the bench. Isaac Jack took four shots and made all four in 8 1/2 minutes. Zimi Nwokeji was 2-for-2 in 12 minutes, including a monster jam off a lob pass from Kobe Elvis, who had nine assists.
So the Flyers were Miss Runner-up and Miss Congeniality with their supporters, which is why the Charleston Classic loves the Flyers for all the money their fans pump into the city’s economy and the support they give the tournament.
The Flyers are in a four-tournament rotation (Charleston, Maui, Orlando, The Bahamas), so won’t be back immediately to see if they can take the next step and take home a trophy.
The Charleston folks, though, wish UD would come every year and bring that entourage and the fans.
After all, Dayton’s fans saved this tournament from extinction, rescued it from oblivion.
It happened in 2012 and ESPN was about to pull the plug on the Charleston Classic for lack of attendance.
Former assistant tournament director Mark Epstein said emphatically over and over, “The Dayton Flyers saved this tournament.” Said Epstein, “I was the assistant tournament director for the first six or seven years. We were having a hard time drawing fans. Even though we had South Carolina and Clemson in it, hometown teams. Bu they were finishing their football seasons and their fans weren’t traveling.
“And we were in trouble,” he added. “ESPN literally told me and tournament director Bobby Cremins they were going to shut it down. Bobby and I asked for one more year and ESPN said, ‘OK, one more year and that’s it.’ They didn’t really want to give us another year.”
Epstein said the tournament had a weak field that year. . .South Carolina Upstate, Coastal Carolina and some other basketball non-entities.
“We knew they weren’t going to draw,” said Epstein. “So the evening sessions come along and the first game Dayton is playing and they had 3,500 people (in the 5,500-seat TD Arena). We knew right then and there we were home free.
“And I will say it until the day I die. . .Dayton saved the tournament. That’s why they keep getting invited back. Dayton saved the tournament.”