The Dayton Flyers still had a chance to beat Saint Louis with 4:44 to play, having trimmed a 52-43 deficit to 53-51 on a basket by Jordan Davis and then six straight points by Jalen Crutcher.
In a lot of ways, however, their chances took the biggest hit in the first half when their best player over the last two-plus months, redshirt freshman forward Obi Toppin, banged his knee against a Saint Louis player while driving the baseline. He was called for a charge on the play, angering everyone cheering for Dayton, but also limped off the court with 6:08 to play. He was not 100 percent when he returned to start the second half.
“We were hoping that the second half it would loosen up on him a little bit,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “He went out there and he battled and he tried but obviously he wasn’t what we’re used to seeing out of him.”
Friday night’s quarterfinal game in the A-10 Tournament is the first of three the Flyers would have to win to reach the NCAA March Madness Tournament, with the First Four set to begin March 19 at UD Arena.
Toppin said after the game his knee would be fine. He fought to keep it loose in the second half. He finished with seven points on 3-of-9 shooting in 30 minutes.
Key adjustment: Dayton made 13 of 24 shots (54.2 percent) in the first half and 9 of 26 (34.6 percent) in the second half. Switching to a zone defense helped Saint Louis, though coach Travis Ford worried it might have tired his players, who will play a 3:30 p.m. semifinal against No. 2 seed Davidson on Saturday.
“When you’re trying to win and move on, you worry about winning that game,” Ford said. “You worry about doing whatever you can to win this game, and we were talking about it over there on the sideline a little bit. Do we change defenses? Do we do some things to try to get some rest to win the game?
“Because I thought we went through about a three-minute period in the middle of the second half where we fatigued and we gave them a mini-run. I called time-out and discussed it with the assistants: Do we want to change? What do you think about maybe getting some other guys in? Everybody said, ‘Listen, we got to roll with these guys. We’re going to have to roll with these guys. Let’s just figure out this game and worry about the rest later.’ We played hard. Playing a zone is harder than playing man-to-man, sometimes, because you’re trying to cover so many different spaces.”
Better execution: While Dayton couldn’t figure out the Saint Louis zone, the Billikens had success against Dayton’s. They shot 33.3 percent in the first half and 57.1 percent in the second half. Tramaine Isabell Jr., scored 24 points. Jordan Goodwin had 17.
“I think we played inside-out,” Isabell said. “I think they went zone. We hit the short corner. Got some kick-outs. … I think we just rose to the occasion.”
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In summary: Dayton hopes and expects to get a NIT bid Sunday, but here is Grant’s summary of a 21-11 season if there is no more basketball to be played for his team. Dayton loses one scholarship player, redshirt senior forward, Josh Cunningham, after this season.
“At the end of the day, our guys went out and competed at a high level all year,” Grant said, “and like I told them, they got nothing to hang their hat about. It didn’t go our way today, so you’ve got to give Saint Louis credit, and you know, we’ve got a great group of guys in there, and I’m proud to be their coach.”
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