Dayton never trailed in its A-10 clinching victory Wednesday night. But that doesn’t mean the Flyers’ 79-72 win over VCU came easy.
Dayton’s seniors came out strong in their final home game. Charles Cooke and Scoochie Smith powered the Flyers’ offense in the first half. Cooke scored off of a Smith steal with just under a minute to go in the half to stretch the lead to 11. The basket gave Cooke 15 points in the half, and had Dayton thinking blowout.
VCU was able to keep the game within reach thanks to Justin Tillman and Mo Alie-Cox. Tillman threw down a dunk and then blocked a shot leading to another score in the final seconds of the first half. In the second half, Alie-Cox stepped up his offensive game and scored 10 of VCU’s first 11 points.
Dayton’s lead swelled to 14 with 12 minutes to play, but VCU would slowly chip away. A JeQuan Lewis three point play with just over three minutes remaining shrunk the Dayton lead to just two. Lewis, however, went on to miss a series of three pointers in the final minute, including one that could have given the Rams the lead. Dayton was then able to close the game at the foul line.
The significance of the win was twofold for Dayton.
First, the Flyers clinched the A-10 regular season championship, as well as the No. 1 seed in the league tournament.
Second, the win came on Senior Night. The Flyers’ current class of seniors had already set a program record for wins, and the victory on Wednesday night was a perfect home ending. Cooke and Smith both finished with 20 points, while Kyle Davis scored 12 points and Kendall Pollard added 11 points. Those four seniors were Dayton’s top four scorers.
But while the seniors stole the spotlight, it was sophomore Josh Cunningham that may have had the biggest impact on the game. Both Pollard and Xeyrius Williams struggled with foul trouble, forcing Cunningham to play major minutes. Cunningham scored 10 points in 27 minutes off the bench, including a big shot with 3:51 to play that halted a late VCU run. Head coach Archie Miller went as far as to say that Cunningham “saved us” in his post-game remarks.
This is a big development as Cunningham works his way back from an ankle injury that forced him to miss 21 games. Should be continue to improve, a good Dayton team becomes that much deeper.
Up next for Dayton is its regular season finale at George Washington on Saturday. Wednesday night’s victory took most of the intrigue away from that matchup. The Flyers will, however, be playing for “momentum” as Miller put it, not wanting his squad to take anything lightly.
From VCU’s perspective, the loss not only eliminated it from the conference title race, but also brought the second seed in the conference tournament into question. VCU needs either a win against George Mason or a Rhode Island loss to Davidson on Saturday to lock up second place. The Rams could also finish tied with Richmond, but would hold the tiebreaker as a result of their season sweep of the Spiders.
If the Rams are to bounce back, they will likely turn to the trio of players that led them in scoring on Wednesday night. Alie-Cox ended with a game-high 23 points, Tillman collected a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Lewis scored 15 points and dished out five assists.
However things turn out on Saturday, basketball fans can only hope Dayton and VCU meet one more time in the conference tournament. After a regular season split, a conference tournament showdown would settle the score.