Dayton came into its first NCAA Tournament in five seasons believing it could play with anybody. After a three-pointer by Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis bounced off the rim at the buzzer Saturday, the South Region’s 11th-seeded team proved it did indeed belong among the country’s elite.
The 55-53 triumph in a fiercely contested defensive battle propelled Dayton into the NCAA Tournament regional semifinal this week in Memphis. The Flyers play the winner of today’s third-round game between No. 10 Stanford and No. 2 Kansas on Thursday.
In winning its 25th game of the season Dayton, which was bounced from the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament last week in Brooklyn, proved its fifth-place finish in the regular season was perhaps a fluke. Two days after pulling off the first upset of the NCAAs, a 60-59 thriller over Ohio State, Dayton surprised a Syracuse team that had dominated Western Michigan in the second round.
“It feels good for sure,” said Dayton’s Dyshawn Pierre, who led the Flyers with 14 points. “I mean, anyone getting into the Sweet 16 feels good.”
Said Devin Oliver: “It’s an incredible feeling. It could have been a high school team. If we’re going to the Sweet 16, nothing’s better.”
The Flyers last advanced this far in the NCAA Tournament in 1984 when it defeated LSU, Oklahoma and Washington before falling to eventual champion Georgetown and All-America center Patrick Ewing in the regional final.
“We’ve had good teams and there’s been great players that have come through, but we haven’t been able to break through consistently in a long time,” said Dayton coach Archie Miller, who was 5 years old the last time the Flyers made it to the Sweet 16.
But Syracuse and freshman Ennis nearly made this an ill-fated experience for the Flyers.
Good things generally happen when the ball is in Ennis’ hands and the Flyers had no answer for the Canadian, who finished with a game-high 19 points while playing 40 minutes in what could be his last game with the Orange. He scored 17 points in the second half, all with slashes to the basket, but his final shot of the game seemed to hang in the air forever.
After Pierre, who was Ennis’ AAU teammate with the Canadian-based CIA Bounce, missed the second of two free throws, the Orange’s Rakeem Christmas got the ball quickly to Ennis.
The First Niagara Center stood in unison and the several thousand covered in orange wanted a replay of Ennis’ 40-footer that beat Pittsburgh on the road. Instead, Ennis missed and Dayton celebrated.
“It was definitely going in,” Miller said. “That thing was on line, and he went for the win. Thing that went through my head was the game at Pitt, when I saw that highlight on SportsCenter 7,000 times when he banged the three on Pitt.”
Ennis was thinking the same thing.
“I thought I got a really good look,” he said. “I think I would have taken that shot any time. Maybe I should have drove, but it’s one of those plays where if it goes in everybody thinks it’s a good shot, if not I should have drove.”
Meanwhile, it was a disappointing ending for Syracuse a team that just a month ago was a serious national championship contender after winning its first 25 games. The third-seeded Orange (28-6) failed to advance past the third round for the first time since 2011. Last season, Syracuse reached the Final Four and lost to runner-up Michigan.
The Orange were 0 for 10 from long distance, the most missed three-pointers without a make in its NCAA Tournament history. Syracuse finished with 40 points in the paint and connected on just one field goal outside the lane.
“Well, when you make shots, you win,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “When you don’t make shots, you lose in close games. Early in the year, we made shots.”