Murray State came into UD Arena with a 9-1 record, a 16 game road winning streak, and an All-American point guard. Dayton came into this game off a home loss and with no idea if Kevin Dillard would even play, let alone be effective. Naturally Vegas instilled Dayton as 4 point favorites, a line that seemed too absurd to be true. I mean, Murray State +4 was stealing money, right?
The first half seemed to follow that script, as Murray State executed their high ball screen offense at a high level, creating space for Isaiah Canaan to score, draw fouls, and create interior buckets for Ed Daniel and wide open threes for shooters. Dayton, ever so scrappy, did everything they could to hang around, but it looked like the Racers were just too much. Dillard was visibly struggling with back pain, but found ways to dish out 8 first half assists. Vee Sanford and Matt Derenbecker combined for 21 of the Flyers’ 36 first half points, but a late Murray State run gave them a 41-36 advantage heading into the break.
After sloppy play from both teams early in the second half, Dayton began to clamp down and flip the script on the Racers. Defensively, they doubled Canaan off the high ball screen, and the backside rotations that have been sorely lacking finally showed up. With Canaan locked down and Daniel playing through some foul trouble, Dayton was daring someone else on Murray State to beat them. Not only was it the best half of defense this team has played all season, it may be the best defensive half we have seen from Dayton since 2009.
The teams went back and forth for much of the second half, trading small leads and sending the crowd into a level of bi-polar that is only found in the seats at UD Arena. This was college basketball as it is supposed to be, two teams giving everything they have, just waiting for the right moment to deliver a knockout blow. As is so often the case, Kevin Dillard stared that moment in the face, winked, and grabbed on tighter than Matt Kavanaugh holds a precious, young…Pabst Blue Ribbon.
With Dayton holding a 64-60 lead and less than 4 minutes to play, a missed Ed Daniel dunk led to Khari Price finding Dillard in transition for a huge three that finally gave the “Fly Boys” some breathing room. Murray State followed with a bucket, and Dillard responded with a twisting 15 foot jumper and a runner off glass on back to back possessions, giving UD a 71-62 advantage they would not relinquish. All told, Dillard ran off a personal 9-2 run to decide the outcome, and scored 11 of his 18 points in the final 3:36 of the game.
Not to be overlooked, Vee Sanford had the best game of his career, pouring in 23 points, keeping the team in the game before Dillard went Dillard. Matty Light had his third straight strong outing with 14 points, including 4-6 from three. Jalen Robinson gave great effort off the bench, 7 points and 8 boards in 22 minutes. The heroics of Kevin Dillard were the biggest story of the game, but this was a very good team performance. Maybe the best of the year. Little by little, this team is building the kind of depth needed to give Dillard a chance to lead them into A10 contention.
Perhaps a back injury was inevitable, because Kevin Dillard’s back is precisely where the Dayton Flyers have resided since the beginning of last season. If it wasn’t obvious before, this week showed once and for all what that back means to this program. With Dillard unable to play down the stretch of the Illinois State game, UD was scattered and lost on the final possession, only managing two hurried looks that clanged off the rim. Today, with Dillard at far less than 100%, he found the strength to put the program on his back once again, willing them to victory with a smile on his face, and his overgrown balls dragging the floor.