March 27, 2014

Dayton sends message, reaches Elite Eight as No. 11 seed

Flyers pound taller, more physical Stanford with superior team play.

Consider their pseudo-Cinderella glass slipper a good fit for the Dayton Flyers. As the lone remaining double-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament, they wear it well.

The Flyers extended their stay in the Big Dance with Thursday’s 82-72 upset of Stanford in the FedEx Forum. The triumph earned Dayton its first trip to the Elite Eight since 1984 and only the third in school history.

While very little about these Flyers actually screams “underdog,” from their deadly outside shooters to their scrappy front line, there is no denying fans of bracket busters from coast-to-coast have become smitten with Dayton, the No. 11 seed that refuses to lose.

The Flyers (26-10), who tied for fifth in the Atlantic-10 conference standings, need only a Saturday victory over Thursday night’s Florida-UCLA winner to punch their ticket to the Final Four, April 5-7 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

The Flyers last reached the Final Four in 1967 when they fell to UCLA in the title game 79-64. That was so long ago that the Bruins’ star player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, still went by his birth name, Lew Alcindor.

But there is nothing outdated about the Flyers’ team-first, 12-man rotation of contributors who all logged meaningful minutes by halftime. The Flyers eventually wore down the taller Cardinal with superior quickness, superior depth and —above all else — superior shooting from beyond the arc.

Dayton made 34.8 percent of its 3-point shots (8-of-23), including 46.2 percent while opening a 42-32 halftime lead it never relinquished. The Flyers finished with four double-figure scorers, led by guard Jordan Sibert (18 points), and 11 different players contributed points. Dayton’s bench players outscored their Stanford counterparts by a whopping 34-2.

“From top to bottom, our guys kept coming. The way they shared the ball, the way they moved it, was a true team effort,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said. “That’s how we’ve played all year. On the biggest stage, it was nice to see us be ourselves.”

Stanford cut the deficit to four a couple of times after intermission but lost momentum when center Stefan Nastic (15 points, 2 rebounds) picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench with 13:24 remaining. By the time Nastic returned, Dayton had regained momentum. Stanford (23-13) never countered, struggling from behind the arc (23.8 pct.) and overall (37.9 pct.) while being matched in rebounds 35-35 by the shorter Flyers.

Guard Chasson Randle, Stanford’s leading scorer (18.7 avg.), contributed a game-high 21 points but made just 5 of 21 shots. Nastic fouled out with 5:04 to play, ending any Stanford comeback hopes and paving the way for Dayton’s latest statement win as a No. 11 seed.

“People have been doubting us all year and think we can’t do it,” said Sibert, an Ohio State transfer who helped oust his former school in the Flyers’ first game, followed by takedowns of Syracuse and Stanford. “We want to show people we can go out there and handle anybody.”

Add Stanford to the “handled” list. Dayton broke open a back-and-forth game with a 16-4 surge in the first half, taking its first double-digit lead 33-23 on Kendall Pollard’s jumper at the 6:21 mark.

Stanford, which did not allow more than 57 points in either of its tournament wins to reach the Sweet 16, saw Dayton eclipse that mark on Sibert’s driving layup with 11:41 to play. The Flyers never looked back, running their record to 13-0 against teams other than St. Joseph’s since Jan. 25. Fortunately, the Flyers — 0-3 against St. Joseph’s this season — will “only” have to play a traditional power (Florida or UCLA) in Saturday’s make-or-break game to reach the Final Four, not their pesky conference rivals from Philadelphia.

As they came off the floor, Dayton players saluted Flyers fans seated near the tunnel on their way to the locker room. Miller offered a celebratory fist pump to the red-clad contingent that was the loudest group, by far, in FedEx Forum.

“It was a home game out there,” Miller said. “I knew they’d be loud. I didn’t know how many would be here. That really helped us.”

Expect most of them to return for Saturday’s game, when Dayton seeks to punch its ticket to JerryWorld as a double-digit seed. Because the school has a strong basketball history, with seven Sweet 16 appearances (two more than Stanford), Dayton players do not universally embrace the label of a Cinderella team.

But they were happy to send another message Thursday to members of the NCAA selection committee, which assigned them a No. 11 seed.

“We’re a very confident group. We know what we’re capable of,” said forward Devin Oliver, who contributed 12 points and a team-high seven rebounds. “We know we can play with anybody.”

If the Flyers reinforce that point one more time in Memphis, they’ll be headed to Arlington with a chance to win a national championship.

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