By Hal McCoy
It is extremely easy to get ESPN analyst Dickie Vitale excitable, but he was above and beyond Saturday when the University Dayton stunned the basketball world.
The Flyers, prohibitive underdogs to Kansas, the No. 4 team in the nation, pulled the unfathomable upset, 74-73, in the ESPN Events Invitational in Orlando, Fla.
When Mustapha Amzil’s shot at the buzzer nestled through the nets, Vitale screamed, “I’m shocked. I’m stunned. I had Kansas winning this game by 25. This might be the biggest upset in college basketball this season. This is the upset of the year.”
Might? Might? Might?
This is a team that lost home games to UMass Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay.
But even when the Flyer were down 15 in the first half and down by 10 early in the second half, Vitale said, “I’m impressed with Dayton’s heart and tenaciousness. They will not go away.”
Indeed, they did not go away. Kansas felt the Flyers’ hot breath all 40 minutes.
Even Kansas coach Bill Self had a hint. With his team up 10 at the half, 45-35, Self told ESPN, “Dayton’s defense is so good and they are playing so hard.”
The Flyers’ tenacity pushed them ahead, 68-61, with 7:20 left. Then the jitters surfaced. . .six turnovers led to Kansas points and a 13-2 Jayhawks run.
Suddenly, the Flyers were down, 73-70, with a minute left. Freshman point guard Malachi Smith drove for a basket with 0:45 left.
But Kansas had the ball when things completely changed. Kansas’ David McCormack was called for an offensive foul, giving UD the ball with :19.6 left.
After a timeout, Smith controlled the ball down to the game’s expiration date. He drove the basket, but his shot was blocked. The ball was snagged by Amzil and he flung it toward the basket.
He hit the rim and it bounced high off the glass. . .and fell through the hoop as the horn sounded.
Amazingly, it was Amzil’s only shot of the game. And it sent the Flyers into the championship game Sunday afternoon.
It looked as if Vitale’s 25-point loss prediction would come true when the Flyers fell behind, 11-1, to start the game. From there, the Flyers hung tough to keep the deficit at 10 by halftime.
And it was the Flyers playing with aggression and a mission in the second half, and showing heart when Kansas came at them in flurry in the final minutes.
It was their highest victory against a ranked team since they knocked off No. 1 DePaul in 1984 when Ed Young hit a shot at the horn.
“It was great when you see a young team like ours face adversity in the final five minutes. They (Kansas) had a five-point lead, a talented a well-coached team, for our guys to have belief in themselves and sustain a belief in what we were doing to go down the stretch and win the game,” UD coach Anthony Grant told broadcaster Larry Hansgen during a post-game interview.
“Our guys battled,” Grant added. “We were down ten at the half and I felt like we had more in us. We’re six games into the season (3-3) and our guys are beginning to understand what they are capable of.
“When we come together as a team. . .they are starting to understand that the sum is better than the individual parts. When they focus on one goal, try to win, that gives us a chance,” said Grant.
The last play of the game was designed to have Smith drive the basket, which is what he was able to do. But his shot was blocked and Amzil was Mustapha-on-the-spot.
“Smith did a great job trying to turn the corner, but had the shot blocked,” said Grant. “Mustapha’s presence of mind. . .there were 3.8 seconds left when the ball left his hands, he was able to see the clock, and we’re just happy the ball was able to go in for us. And they were able to enjoy the fruit of the hard work they were able to put in to make that win happen.”
What was incredible was that a glance at the box score would indicate that the Flyers lost this game. . .and lost big.
They fumbled away 20 turnovers that led to 26 Kansas points. They were only 11 for 19 at the foul line. Kansas had three players score more than any UD player.
Ochai Agabji, averaging 26, scored 21. Christian Braun and Cam Martin each scored 17. But the Jayhawks were only 9 of 20 from the foul line.
The Flyers were led by freshman DeRon Holmes II, who bullied the basket for 16. Elijah Weaver and Toumani Camara each had 14 and Camara grabbed seven rebounds. Smith, who guides the UD offense like a ship’s captain, chipped in 10.
Smith also had six assists. He didn’t gets one on Amzil’s game-winning shot when Smith’s shot was blocked, but it was the biggest non-assist of the game. Or the season. Or maybe the decade.