There’s no question there were quite a few tired bodies aboard the charter flight from Mississippi back to Dayton late Saturday evening.
Earlier in the week, UD hosted in state for Akron which turned out to be an old fashioned, blue collar battle. The pesky Zips were looking for and upset an early in the second half, struck fear into the Flyer Faithful going on a 29-14 run draining triples from all over the floor. Luckily, UD was able to dupe Akron big man Zeke Marshall into foul trouble and down the stretch, outhustle the fatigued Akron club.
Veterans Paul Williams and Devin Searcy came up big down the stretch with clutch plays including a Williams steal and basket off the full court press and Searcy’s put back after a missed free-throw.
UD prevailed 76-68 against what Coach Gregory called a “gritty” opponent.
The dogfight against Akron though was only the beginning as UD traveled down to play Ole Miss led by former University of Cincinnati coach Andy Kennedy.
Accurately dubbed “a toughness test” by Coach Gregory before the game, the Flyers expended every ounce of toughness and heart they had to pull out a victory over the Rebels.
The first half was eerily reminiscent of past Flyer team’s performances in the road including soft defense, no offensive tempo and an obvious level of discomfort on the floor.
In his first real collegiate challenge, freshman point guard Juwan Staten did not respond well. Senior leader Chris Wright was a non-factor. And as a team, UD gave up 11 second chance points and allowed the Rebels to knock down 7-15 three pointers in the first half helping bolster the Rebels to a 46-33 lead at the break.
Then came the second half.
In what will likely be one of the ugliest halves of basketball this year, UD was able to hold the Rebels to 19 second half points on 7-23 shooting and 0-10 from behind the arc.
The Flyers were led by Chris Johnson who showed why he was named to Third Team All A-10. In 43 minutes, Johnson scored 20 points, pulled down 11 boards and stepped up time and time again to help the Flyers claw back into the game. Josh Parker also made a strong contribution pouring in 18 points and connecting on 8-10 free throws, many of which came down the stretch as UD closed the game on a 14-2 run.
After Parker tied the game at 65 with 1:13 to play, Zach Graham of Ole Miss missed a chip shot that Staten rebounded and was fouled shortly after. With 36 seconds, the freshman stepped to the line in a tied game, on the road and against a BCS opponent with a chance to put give his team the lead.
The Rebels came down and the best shot they got was a contested three which clanked off the front iron that sent the game into overtime.
In the extra period, UD dominated outscoring the Rebels 13-6. The bucket that gave UD their first lead (no typo there) was a driving layup from Staten who bounced back nicely after missing the foul shots late in regulation.
To ice the game, UD’s Josh Parker, Devin Searcy and Chris Johnson showed their maturation over last year making 9-10 free throws (no typo there, either) effectively taking the life out of Ole Miss and moving UD to 3-0.
Before the game, I dubbed this as being the most important non-conference game of the year because I’d argue this result will set the tone for how this Flyer team progresses away from UD Arena.
I sure hope I’m right.