There was plenty of reason for concern, but the Dayton Flyers handled a tough East Tennessee State with ease. Hopefully, an omen for a very happy holiday season.
DAYTON — East Tennessee State University, situatated in Johnson City, a mere 30 minutes from the catastrophic wild fires that devastated Gatlinburg, arrived at UD Arena Saturday with a glossy resume.
The Buccaneers were 7-and-1, they own a 37-point win over Atlantic 10 member Fordham, and they own a 29-point win over Horizon League member, the University of Detroit.
They are co-favorites to win the Southern Conference and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA postseason get-together and they brought in a high-scoring guard named T.J. Cromer.
So it was expected that ETSU would be a pesky opponent for the University of Dayton Flyers, a team of which to be leery and to treat with rapt attention.
It wasn’t that way at all. Charles Cooke made sure the Buccaneers were no problem. Kendall Pollard made sure the Buccaneers were no problem. And Kyle Davis made sure the Buccaners were no problem.
The Flyers dismantled ETSU like a kid taking apart a cheap toy on Christmas morning, an almost boring 75-61 victory that wasn’t that close. UD led by 24 with 8 1/2 minutes left in the game.
Cooke, a drive-to-the-basket automaton, scored 24. Pollard, the rust evaporated from more than a season of injury-infested inactivity, had 12 points and 12 rebounds. Davis, a wet blanket when it comes to stopping the opposing team’s best player, held T.J. Cromer to one field goal on 11 attempts and a free throw — 13 points below his average.
Cromer hit his first three-point attempt early in the game from deep in the right corner and the crowd oohed and aahed. But after that Cromer was tarnished chrome.
Davis, in addition to rendering Cromer a non-entity, had four assists, three steals, and a blocked shot. After blocking 11 shots earlier in the week against Division II Saint Joseph’s of Indiana, the Flyers blocked nine Saturday, four by guard Charles Cooke. The Flyers also forced ETSU into 18 turnovers.
While the fans and the media may not have thought much of ETSU, Flyers coach Archie Miller was enthusiastic about the victory.
“Like I told our kids after the game, that’s one win that is really going to count come the end of the season,” he said, obviously expecting ETSU to be a force in the Southern Conference and construct a work sheet that will aid and abet UD’s RPI. “That team is going to win a lot of game and it has a lot of talent. We were really ready to play and our guys took on the challenge on the post and on the glass.”
The Flyers outscored ETSU in the paint, 50-24, and outrebounded the Buccaneers 39-33.
And Miller was impressed with the all-around performance of Kyle Davis.
“Like always, once again Kyle set the tone on their best player (Cromer), a guy having a great season and he was 1 for 11,” Miller said. “Kyle has guarded a lot of different guys throughout his career. Right now he is in a very, very good place mentally to take on the challenge — especially in the first two or three minutes of a game to make sure the other team’s best player isn’t comfortable to start the game. He got him (Cromer) into a rut and he has done it a number of times throughout his career.
“Most important, though, if you look at our last four or five games, since Nebraska (a four-point loss) he has gotten better every game,” said Miller. “He is playing the way we need him to play. He does alot out there that doesn’t get noticed — three more steals, four more assists, a couplel more layups, some deflections and a block. He is just a tough guy and he is going to have to be tough for us to be successful because he is going to have to guard a lot of good players.”
While Kyle Davis does the underbelly work, Kendall Pollard does the big stuff and his return lifts the Flyers (7-and-2) to another level.
As Cooke said after his 24-point contribution, “Kendall is big-time, a big-time player, man. He brings a lot of energy and pulls out some gutsy performances. We definitely depend on him.”
Pollard was 5 for 10 from the field, hit two of three from the foul line, ripped down 12 rebounds (10 defensive), had three assists and a blocked shot — a game that put a smile on his face almost as broad as the one he put on Miller’s face, and putting a smile on Miller’s face is like winning a Simon Says game.
“We got a great win against a great team and I believe they’ll be an NCAA tournament team,” Pollard said of ETSU. “That’s a good one for our portfolio. For 40 minutes this is probably the best game we’ve played. We came out playing hard and we finished hard, too.”
Said Miller after Pollard’s illustrious 31 minutes, “I wasn’t sure he would even be playing this soon. We’re happy he’s back. Knock on wood, we’ll see how he responds (to 31 minutes of playing time). We have a week to get him sped back up. He sure adds a different dimension to our team.
“Kendall knows how to play our system, especially defenisvely,” said Miller. “He brings another guy who knows how to play hard with our defensive activity. Offensively, our guys are confident throwing him the ball inside. He gives guys confidence as an experienced player who knows what he is doing.”
Of the 20 blocked shots the Flyers have enacted over their last two games, Pollard smiled and said, “It must be Steve and I wish we had him.”
Pollard was referring to Steve McElvene, the 6-foot-10 freshman who specialized in shot rejections last season but died from complications of an enlarged heart last May.
“If he was still here we’d probably have 30 blocks in the last two games,” said Pollard. “Steve. . .I think about him every day, man. I usually wear wrist bands in his honor but I can’t play in them. I’m trying to keep his name alive as much as I can. I tap my heart and say, ‘Rest in peace, Steve.’”
The Flyers are off until next Saturday when the travel to Chicago to face Northwestern in the United Center and Chicago is Pollard’s home.
“I’ve been wanting to play in the United Center my whole life so I’m very excited,” Pollard said. “So this game is the most important non-conference game for me. I was there often as a fan, but never got a chance to play there, so it is a big one for me.”
And against a talented Northwestern team, it is another important game for UD’s RPI rating.