With all apologies to the teams we watched fight it out in the First Four, the NCAA Tournament began with a bang Thursday afternoon when Dayton announced its arrival.
We wrote this then:
It was dreary in Dayton on Thursday morning. Wednesday rain combined with bitter wind and a chill that still hung in the air didn't make for a friendly opening to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Things are certainly looking a bit more sunny now.
There was no way to know then that this ride would continue as long as it did.
Since that time, we have followed along with the celebration each step of the way as Dayton defied logic again and again. We watched as the President of the university rode on the hands of his students down the street after defeating Syracuse.
We watched as this team of teams kept winning despite every number saying that they should have traveled back to dreary Dayton on that opening Thursday night.
It was the first time all tournament that things didn't go exactly according to plan for the Flyers, although for a while, it looked like maybe the magic was still in place for just a few ticks longer. As the game began, Dayton ran the ball inside to draw the double team and then kicked back outside.
In went the 3-pointer and the game was on. The run of perfection lasted until the game was tied at 23 with just under 4 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the first half. Florida then decided to play as if the No. 1 team in the NCAA Tournament, and proceeded to go on a 15-1 run leading into the break, headlined by the unhinged play of Scottie Wilbekin.
Maybe we should have seen that run coming. Tied at 23, Jordan Sibert hadn't scored, despite leading the way for Dayton through its first three game. Tied at 23, the Flyers struggled to score inside, and were living from the 3-point line.
The glass slipper was cracking but the adrenaline all the mid-major fans around the country were feeling masked the pain. It wouldn't only get worse.
Before we pull back the curtain on the final 20 minutes, we have to give an aside.
We place so much emphasis on performance in this NCAA Tournament as a country. This 68-team extravaganza is a crap shoot. It is designed to drive rational fans crazy, as the best team, or the team that you think might be the best, will more often than not run into a team that just has its number on the given night.
Win or go home is cruel, and masks the achievement of an entire season that some teams should be proud of. That is why it is so hard when a Wichita State loses, because people -- not all people, but some -- will forget the run they had because it ended with Kentucky. This is why it is so hard when an Stephen F. Austin bows out to UCLA. People who didn't follow the Lumberjacks barely had time to appreciate them.
The country got a little longer to fall in love with this Dayton team, who beat all of the teams they shouldn't have beaten. Ohio State (THE University of Dayton), Syracuse (Nonstop Flyers), and Stanford (UNDENIABLE!) all found out that this Dayton team was good, and deserved to be recognized for not just three games, but for the season that they put together.
Entering Saturday night, that team was 26-10, and hadn't lost since the beginning of February. Even then, it looked more like a matchup issue than a real issue with playing. St. Joseph's just had the right team to beat Dayton.
Vee Sanford, Devin Oliver and Matt Kavanaugh are all gone next season, but this team still has a ton of talent and depth returning. If they are healthy, and smart, there is no reason they won't be back to thrill the country again in the NCAA Tournament, with Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre, and Kendall Pollard.
There is no reason this team can't be back in the Sweet 16 again. To forget the great season the Flyers put together because of this game is not right.
But there was that second half which had the ability to make you forget like you had been the one taking down all the beverages in the in crowd that gathered on the UD campus three times in the last two weeks.
There was a moment late in the game when it looked like maybe that season could continue. The Flyers had cut the lead to eight points, and had multiple opportunities to draw even closer. This is when that hangover started to take hold.
For three excruciating minutes no one scored on either end. This was exacerbated by Dayton failing to grab a rebound on the defensive end. In the second half alone, the Gators pulled in eight offensive boards, extending possessions at just the wrong time for the hopes and dreams of the Flyers. The ball just avoided the hands of the guys in red. And the headache pounded.
Over the final four minutes of the game, the Flyers scored just a single basket, by Pierre with 19 seconds on the clock. By then, Florida was into full celebration mode, and mid-major fans were lamenting the end of another season, having realized the dream was coming to an end when that ball wouldn't land in Dayton's hands.
Wilbekin ended the second half the way that he ended the first, only in less dramatic fashion. He knocked down free throws instead of threes, but the effect was the same. He was on a mission to end someone's season, and 20 minutes apart, the Most Outstanding Player in the South Region did just that.
The magic finally left the Flyers. There was no unsung hero this time around. Kendall Pollard scored just two points. Super sixth man Sanford managed just four. Scoochie Smith attempted to play the role, and despite an exhilarating run to the hoop, had just five points to show for himself.
No one managed to take that mantle of hero on this night. After Pierre's 18 points and Oliver's 12, no other Flyer reached double figures. Sibert never found a shot.
This flight was grounded in Memphis, but only after one hell of a ride.