By HAL McCOY
The target on the backs of the University of Dayton basketball team gets larger and larger — about the size of an archer’s target right now.
The Flyers, the No. 4 team in the nation, are the object of every team’s intentions these days.
Another wannabe spoiler surfaced Tuesday night in Fairfax, Va., in the personage of George Mason University.
The Patriots came in with a 4-and-10 record in the Atlantic 10 Conference and an 11-point underdog.
But just as several teams have done recently, George Mason put its best foot forward before falling, 62-55, in the Eagle Bank Arena.
And the positive numbers keep mounting for the Flyers: 26-and-2, 15-and-0 in the A-10, 17 wins in a row.
UD is tied with New Mexico State for the nation’s longest winning streak. Ironically, George Mason beat New Mexico State earlier this season. And the Patriots own a win over Virginia Commonwealth.
But those two accomplishments are the only upticks on the GMU resume. And they tried mightily to add the Flyers to that short list.
With 1:19 to go, UD led by two, 57-55. But super-sub Ibi Watson drove across the lane for a bucket with 48 seconds left.
The Patriots immediately committed a turnover and were forced to foul Obi Toppin and he made one of two free throws at 0:24 and Jalen Crutcher made one of two at 0:20.
The Flyers outscored GMU 5-0 in the final 44 seconds to preserve the victory. And it came ruggedly because UD made only 3 of its last eight free throws and only 9 of 18 on the night.
Only two Flyers hit double digits on this night, the roommates. Obi Toppin led with 19 points (three dunks) and Jalen Crutcher contributed 13.
Watson’s off-the-bench contribution was nine points and the big, big basket in the final minute. Both Ryan Mikesell and Trey Landers snagged eight rebounds and Toppin grabbed seven.
A.J. Wilson, whose grandmother lives in Dayton, scored 18. The only other Patriot in double figures was Jordan Millers with 13. But he was 6 of 17 from the field and 1 for six from three.
The Flyers shot 50 per cent on 25 for 50 while holding GMU to 38 per cent on 22 for 57. Neither team was adept at long range. UD made 3 of 16 threes and the Patriots hit 3 of 19.
The Flyers played sharply in the first half and never trailed. The started with a 7-2 lead and owned an eight-point 22-14 lead after a spin move under the basket by Ryan Mikesell.
At intermission, the Flyers had things under control at 30-25.
But as happens so often with UD this season, the second half didn’t go so well. GMU scored the first five points of the second half to tie it, 30-30.
And they took their first lead of the game when Wilson scored twice in 20 seconds to give the Patriots a 34-32 lead.
After Toppin hit two free throws to tie it, Miller scored in the lane for GMU’s second — and last — lead of the gamer, 36-34, with 15:10 left.
Watson buried a three to regain the lead for the Flyers and he scored again at 12:10 to push the UD lead to 39-36.
Wilson converted a conventional three bucket-and-free-throw to tie it again, 39-39, and the crowd sniffed a monumental upset. And it was 41-all at 9:35 and the crowd sniffed a monumental upset.
It was not to be.
Dwayne Cohill, suddenly almost as important off the bench as Watson, scored on a fast break and Toppin silenced the crowd with a slam dunk. Toppin’s two free throws pushed the margin to 47-41 and the Patriots puffed from behind the rest of the way.
The Flyers, trying to become the first Atlantic 10 team to go 18-and-0 in league play, host Davidson Friday night, a game that will be televised on ESPN2 with Dick Vitale in the house.