By HAL McCOY
For 32 1/2 minutes, the Davidson College basketball team ran into the Perfect Storm and that storm wore the red and blue of the University of Dayton.
The Flyers played perfect half-court defense and perfect get-it-inside offense for those 32 1/2 minutes, enabling them to construct a 16-point lead with 7 1/2 minutes left in Tuesday’s game.
But they were playing Davidson, the Atlantic 10’s first-place team and they were playing in Belk Arena, where Davidson had won 17 straight.
So, as expected, it wasn’t that easy. The storm clouds cleared for Davidson and they came storming all the way back, tying the game with one minute left.
And it was tied with :02.2 seconds left when Josh Cunningham was fouled in the act and awarded two free throws.
Cunningham is only a 59 per cent free throw shooter this season, but was 8-for-8 on this night when he toed the line.
He missed the first. But he buried the second and a last gasp three-pointer by Davidson clanked off the rim and the Flyers had an improbable 74-73 victory.
It was a gut test for the Flyers after just three days ago they overcame a 22-point deficit in the second half at home against Virginia Commonwealth, only to fall one point short.
This time it was one point to the good because the Flyers kept pushing and punching the ball inside to Cunningham and Obi Toppin.
And their hand-to-hand combat defense kept Davidson away from the basket until the end.
The Flyers led, 66-50, with 7:30 left when Davidson when on a whirlwind 21-5 sprint to tie it, 71-71.
Toppin missed a shot under the basket but grabbed his own rebound and put it in to give UD a 73-71 lead. But Davidson rushed down the floor for an easy layup to tie it, 73-73.
Then Cunningham topped off a fabulous night with his game-winning free throw.
Cunningham has drawn double and triple coverage around the hoop and this day was no different, except he muscled his way for baskets or for fouls.
The Flyers led, 48-37, with 16:35 left when Cunningham picked up his third foul and grabbed a sideline seat.
But the Flyers kept rolling, with Toppin scoring seven points over the next seven minutes, including his 65th dunk, one shy of Chris Wright’s single season record.
That gave UD its biggest lead, a 17-point margin at 63-46. And that’s when Davidson tried for a Silky Sullivan finish.
The Fatigue Factor certainly played a part in Dayton’s near-disastrous finish.
Trey Landers returned to the lineup after missing Saturday’s game with a sore shoulder, but the rust was evident. He was in quick foul trouble, played only nine minutes and didn’t score.
That meant guard Jalen Crutcher played 39 of the 40 minutes, Jordan Davis played 38 and Ryan Mikesell played 36.
Cunningham made all six of his shots and was 9 for 10 from the foul line for 21 points. Toppin made six of 10 and was five for eight from the foul line for 18 points and his 12 rebounds gave him a double-double.
Jordan Davis scored 15 and made four of seven from the three-point line, including a mammoth one with 3:22 left to stop Davidson’s 11-0 run that drew them within 66-62.
Crutcher had an off day shooting, 2-of-10 and five misses from three, but his four assists and constant penetration down the lane led to UD baskets.
Davidson’s Jon Axel Gudmundsson led all scorers with 26 and teammates Kellan Grady and Kishawn Pritchett added 18 and 13.
The Flyers dominated the paint early in the game, but when Cunningham and Toppin encountered foul problems the Wildcats drove the lane down the stretch and outscored UD in the paint, 32-26.
The victory lifted the Flyers to 17-9, 9-4 in the Atlantic 10 and the defeat dropped Davidson (19-7, 10-3) out of a first place tie with Virginia Commonwealth.