DAYTON, Ohio — The way last season came to an end for the Dayton Flyers 11 months ago is still all too fresh in their memories.
Flyers fans leaving UD Arena after Saturday’s roller-coaster thrill ride can’t be blamed for feeling sick thinking another March disappointment might be in store. For the sellout faithful of 13,407 at UD Arena, Saturday could’ve been a strong sign that maybe this season will be different for another Flyer team hitting its late-season stride.
LaRon Holmes II was a tour de force with a career-high 34 points and six rebounds but Dayton (19-10, 11-5) couldn’t hold a late second-half lead and fell, 74-69 to George Mason in an Atlantic-10 showdown.
It was Dayton’s second home loss of the season and the end of a four-game winning streak.
When George Mason big Josh Oduro fouled out with 2:20 left in a 64-64 game, Holmes set his career high with a free throw and his 33rd point and a 65-64 lead. But Mason (17-12, 9-7) responded with a basket for a 66-65 lead. Another Patriot – Malik Henry – fouled out on the next possession.
Holmes hit one of two free throws to tie the game, 66-66. DeVon Cooper’s layup put the Patriots up, 68-66, with 40.4 seconds remaining. Malachi Smith’s runner hit off the back iron but there was Holmes to grab the rebound with 23.1 seconds left. But he missed two free throws and Malachi Smith fouled Cooper.
Cooper missed the front end but on the Flyers possession, Smith drove the lane and was expecting Holmes to follow all the way to the basket. Instead his pass back was intercepted before it reached Holmes, all but ending Dayton’s hopes of a win.
Smith did drill a long three with 4.7 seconds left to cut the GMU lead to one, 70-69.
— Dayton Basketball (@DaytonMBB) February 25, 2023
They want to avoid a repeat of having their bubble burst in the Atlantic 10 tournament the way it did when – as a No. 2 seed – they fell to Richmond in the A-10 Semifinals, 68-64. Had they held onto their 33-25 halftime lead, they would’ve faced No. 1 Davidson and likely would’ve earned an at-large bid.
Instead, with fate out of their possession, Richmond stunned Davidson in the championship game and that sealed Dayton’s fate and a trip to the NIT.
Leading up to the 2022 A-10 tournament, the Flyers appeared to be playing their best basketball. They won five straight, one less than what they had coming into Saturday’s game with George Mason. But instead of taking care of business against an inferior team in LaSalle, they tripped and lost in Philadelphia, 62-60.
They managed to win their final two regular season games but that loss would linger and prove costly.
Entering Saturday, the cold, hard facts were that Dayton was just 65th in the NCAA ‘Net’ Rankings, a key determining factor in at-large berths. In a conference that’s not even in the Top 10 of conference rankings in the KenPom rankings, that means you’re probably going to have to win the conference tournament to get your ticket punched.
Dayton is the highest ranked A-10 team in the country at No. 63 in the KenPom rankings. They beat the next-highest ranked team in the conference – VCU – on the road to start their five game winning streak.
But Saturday’s loss almost guarantees Dayton will have to win the tournament to get a ticket to the madness in March.
Koby Brea hit a corner three with 10:35 remaining to put Dayton up, 47-44. It was a long road back. Dayton trailed at one point, 33-26, in the first half and 40-35 in the second half.
But the Patriots wouldn’t go away on this night. Two Devon Cooper free throws put George Mason up, 60-58, with just under five minutes remaining. But Holmes answered with another improbable shot, a twister over Josh Oduro on the blocks to tie the game.
Holmes came up with a clutch sequence that turned the tide for the Flyers. He stopped Mason’s Ginika Ojiako at point-blank range at the basket, grabbed the rebound, gave it to floor court general Malachi Smith. Holmes kept going.
Holmes made a circus bank shot after his path to the basket was blocked. He lifted on his off foot for a five-foot half-runner that went in as the clock hit zero, drawing the Flyers to within five, 33-28, at the half.
Before that, George Mason was in command of the tempo and the score, using a 17-7 spurt to build a seven-point lead before Holmes two-way play with under 20 seconds left.
Dayton inducted its 2023 athletic hall of fame class at halftime, including star Brooks Hall who led the Flyers to two NCAA appearances between 2000 and ’03.