After a nationally acclaimed 2019-20 season was cut short by the pandemic, and garnering back-to-back second seeds in the Atlantic 10 Championship over the past two seasons to ultimately fall short, that NCAA Tournament bid has eluded Dayton since 2017.
However, behind returning All-A10 First Team selection DaRon Holmes II and a cast of transfer talent, head coach Anthony Grant has the Flyers at a 19-3 record and atop the conference, looking firmly like NCAA Tournament contenders yet again.
Between former Pittsburgh forward Nate Santos, Merrimack transfer Javon Bennett, and former Robert Morris recruit Enoch Cheeks, Grant’s class has been the perfect grouping to pair alongside Dayton’s returners to give the Flyers that extra boost.
“It’s all a process,” said Grant. “We’re still learning, still growing, and I’m still trying to figure out how to put our guys in the best position to be the best versions of themselves. [A win over Saint Joseph’s] was good for us to be able to show what this team’s capable of doing.”
In that sentiment, on Tuesday night, Dayton traveled to Philadelphia for a matchup with St. Joe’s that saw the Flyers pull off a 94-79 second half comeback behind a balanced attack and a physical defensive effort.
Tying Dayton guard Kobe Elvis for a game-high 21 points, Santos contributed 19 in the second half to aid the Flyers comeback push, finishing 8-for-12 shooting from the field.
Early in the season in particular, Santos’ double-digit scoring performances helped lift Dayton to critical wins over LSU, St. John’s, and Horizon League leaders Oakland.
While Bennett, just a sophomore, has been thrust into the Flyers starting lineup and against St. Joe’s, he contributed 18 points and four assists, shooting 5-for-6 from the field on the night.
Rounding out the effort was Cheeks with 12 points, seven rebounds, and two steals, providing a consistent threat from three-point range for Dayton at 3-of-5 from deep.
With all three transfer pieces featuring in Dayton’s starting lineup during the win, Grant spoke post game on the development each has offered to his roster throughout this season.
“All [three of] those guys are understanding the assignment,” he said. “We’re on the back nine of the conference slate right now and just from an offensive standpoint, we’ve taken advantage of the skill set that [they offer].”
To get it done against a young but talented team like St. Joe’s, however, it was Dayton’s defense that set the tone to ignite the second half push and secure a hard fought Flyers win.
“[St. Joe’s] came out early with great energy, made shots, built a lead, but our guys showed great resiliency and we were able to weather that storm early,” said Grant. “In the second half, we did a great job of being aggressive and we were able to defensively take away the stuff that was hurting us early.”
After climbing into the national rankings back in mid-January and rising to No. 18 after back-to-back wins to close out last week, Dayton is once again pacing the conversation in the A10.
At 9-1 atop the conference standings, the Flyers will have an opportunity to build on that lead with a matchup at fourth-place VCU tomorrow night.
Against that team that crushed Dayton’s NCAA hopes in last season’s A10 Championship Final, it’ll mark another big test on the Flyers journey back to the Tournament promised land.