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Dayton and Kansas Create OT Maui Magic for the Ages
Dayton and Kansas Create OT Maui Magic for the Ages
Christopher Rieman
Published by Chris R
Smile Dayton and Kansas Create OT Maui Magic for the Ages

The trip to Maui is so far away, yet the Dayton Flyers felt right at home for most of the three-day Maui Jim Maui Invitational this week. After bludgeoning Georgia and Virginia Tech by a combined 46 points, Dayton matched up against #4 Kansas in the title game on Wednesday afternoon. The back and forth rock fight pitted two opponents that couldn’t have been more opposites: the Jayhawks flooding the court with the nation’s finest former prep stars, while the Flyers countering with gritty street brawlers many other schools passed on for being too short, too slow, or too whatever-the-crutch-was to play at a school such as Kansas.

Yet it was “Crutch” (Jalen Crutcher) that sent the Lahaina Civic Center into bedlam after nailing a three-point shot at the end of regulation to force overtime to the disbelief of the royal-blue clad KU fans in attendance. In the end, Kansas had one more guy to swing the pendulum and ultimately win 90-84 after 45 minutes of insanity in a 2,400-seat gymnasium that had the passion and energy of an NCAA Regional Final. The Flyers never had an answer for Udoka Azubuike’s 29pts (12-15 shooting) and four blocks before fouling out after the result was largely decided. The 7’0”/280lb man-child wreaked havoc inside the paint all afternoon as Head Coach Bill Self lobbed the shorter Flyer frontcourt for catch-and-dunks without much resistance. Great players are hard to stop and Azubuike was a 5-star Burger Boy out of HS and could be an NBA Lottery pick when his senior year concludes.

Jayhawk guard Devon Dotson scored 31pts on 11-15 shooting with a variety of dribble-drives to the hoop, but UD could have overcome Dotson’s career effort had they not been so pre-occupied with Azubuike’s domination inside the paint. The Flyers usually tried to guard him one on one, but had no choice but to double the big man at times, leaving the Dayton guards on an island to deny Dotson’s cat-quick moves to the rim without back-side help. Either way, Head Coach Anthony Grant has his hands full devising a strategy to stop the big fella.

The difference in the game was one aircraft carrier in the middle and while forward Obi Toppin had no choice but to guard Azubuike, Toppin is not the ideal player to guard big post men. Jordy Tshimanga saw two minutes of action to try to counter the problem, but drew three fouls and never saw the court again. Dayton doesn’t have a player like Azubuike and hardly anyone else in college basketball does either.

Despite the HS press clippings and college pedigrees however, the Flyers hung tough throughout the game and forced Kansas to play their best basketball of the season – by getting career games from their two best players. While Dayton was outscored big-time in the paint, they made it rain from behind the arc with 16-33 shooting to keep things tight. The Flyers even opened up a 66-58 lead with eight minutes remaining but got caught with a bad lineup on the court and saw the lead vanish just moments later.

Crutcher’s long, desperation, extend-the-game-or-go-home trey to end regulation bought Dayton five more minutes but Self told his guys to throw the ball into Azubuike on every trip down the floor in OT and force UD to defend the Immovable Object.

They couldn’t.

Azubuike scored at-will on mini-hook shots and converted and-1s to extend the lead to multiple possessions the Flyers couldn’t overcome. A pair of missed bunnies and a couple missed free throws ended thoughts of a second overtime.

The defeat was painful because the context was so omnipresent. Wednesday’s result is but a footnote on Kansas’ journey through the Big-12 as a potential #1 or #2 seed and national title favorite. Win or lose, nothing would have changed that. Not now, not ever – because they are Kansas.

A Flyer victory over the #4 Jayhawks in the Maui Championship game however would have been program-defining and those seminal moments of opportunity are few and far between as a non-power conference program from the A10. More importantly, you need a heck of a basketball team good enough to make those opportunities relevant. This team had the goods to do just that. Small consolation for Flyer fans, but Kansas had to play near their best to stick a fork in the Flyers and we haven’t seen that from a national title contending opponent in decades. Grant’s team threw haymakers, but ran out of punches and clock time to pull off a win for the ages.

Could the Flyers have played better? Sure, but UD did so many things exceedingly well that it’s hard to ask for much more than what was given. They sold out on both ends of the court despite legitimate shortcomings, shot the cover off the basketball from long-range, demonstrated unflappable poise when getting down, rallied to take the lead several times, hustled non-stop, and played for one another from start to finish. It wasn’t perfect, but it was about all we had. Kansas is really good and the Flyers are short one post player capable of matching up across the lineup. That’s the reality and KU won’t ever let you be close to perfect.

Even in defeat however, UD probably gained more national respect than from the two blowout victories over Georgia and Virginia Tech combined. Everybody knew what Kansas had. Now they know what Dayton has and it’s pretty darn impressive. Against all but about five teams in the country, Dayton would have won on Wednesday. Let that sink in. Crutcher

Even more impressive was the atmosphere inside the Lahaina Civic Center. As coaches, players, and fans grab jets back to the mainland, they’ll reminisce the building’s championship vitality. It was unprecedented for nearly two and a half hours – easily the most passionate game UD has ever played in Maui and much of that from the back-and-forth pageantry of the Jayhawk and Flyer fan bases that took part in their own caged death match from the steel bleachers. The elevated gym with butter-soft rims felt like an NCAA Midwest Regional Final that had somehow relocated from the United Center to the Hawaiian Islands – and 2,400 lucky souls drew straws to see who got tickets. The chants and screaming never stopped, folks never sat down, and Maui Jim himself must have looked around and said, “give me this every year and I will sponsor the tournament in perpetuity”.

I’ve seen a lot of Flyers games over the last 40 years and this was easily one of the five or 10 best atmospheres I’ve had the privilege of enjoying. It wasn’t just the fans however; the basketball itself was top-flight as guys made big-time plays to counter big-time plays from the opposition. It was a terrific college basketball game played at an exceedingly high level and while both teams had blundering moments, those occasions never took away from the maniacal investment from the stands, the bench, and the court. It was a game that mattered to both teams – not in the macro sense but in the moment to win bragging rights.

Make no mistake: Kansas earned Dayton’s respect and so did college basketball. In a game of inches, falling short still feels like a mile away. The Lahaina Civic Center has been good to the Flyers over the years however and the same was true this year. Dayton has never failed to reach the winner’s bracket, never failed to win at least two games, and never finished worse than 3rd place. It might be 4,400 miles away but the Maui Invitational loves Dayton and Dayton loves Maui. Having sister school and Marianist sidearm Chaminade host the tournament only makes for an even more rewarding experience in the Hawaiian Islands.

While the reward UD wanted slipped through the fingertips – hoisting the coveted championship trophy for the second time – the moment itself didn’t. Dayton was everything Kansas thought they were and then some. The game was intimate, intense, loud, and relentless – the kind of stage only the LCC could provide. For those privileged enough to have secured tickets, it will be filed in the “Best Ever” manila folder of Flyer games you’ll tell your children and grandchildren about. You’ll remember the hour and a half line of Flyer fans waiting to get into the gym before tipoff, the screaming, the chanting, the stomping, the bleacher high-fives to other unnamed UD fans, the shots, the dunks, the threes, the momentum swings, the hustle plays, and perhaps even the heartbreak. But you’ll remember it most for being a Flyer moment where college basketball was better off for having played the game. It’s why Kansas and Dayton will always have standing invitations in Maui, and why their fan bases elevate the battle on the court to something greater than the game itself.

C. M. Rieman | Publisher | 937.361.4630 | Get the latest here:

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