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Minneapolis Minneapolis — It would be hard to imagine a player and moniker meshing more seamlessly than Chris Wright and the Dayton Flyers.
With dunks exceeded in ferocity only by the altitude of their apex, Wright lifted Dayton to heights not seen on its Ohio campus in nearly 20 years.
Wright scored a career-high 27 points and had 10 rebounds to lead the 11th-seeded Flyers to a 68-60 win over sixth-seeded West Virginia on Friday in the Midwest Regional, their first victory in the NCAA tournament since 1990.
“We didn’t need a Superman effort from anybody,” coach Brian Gregory said. “But it was nice to get a couple of them.”
Charles Little added 18 points for once-mighty Dayton (27-7), which had been 1-13 against coach Bon Huggins’ teams dating to his days storming up and down the Cincinnati sideline.
These Flyers weren’t as easily intimidated by his huffing and puffing.
They’ll play third-seeded Kansas University in the second round Sunday. The Jayhawks defeated North Dakota State 84-74 earlier in the day.
“There’s times that we don’t play very well,” Gregory said. “But we never back down.”
Darryl Bryant had 21 points and Devin Ebanks added 14 points and 12 rebounds for West Virginia (23-12), which had won at least two games in the NCAA tournament in each of its last four appearances.
Wright, the highest of the Flyers from Dayton, threw down a one-handed goal-shaker off an inbounds pass and then a soaring tomahawk dunk in transition for a 46-37 lead with 14 minutes left in the game. He converted two three-point plays off dunks, with teammate Mickey Perry’s mother hollering “Put them in the hole, Superman!” while the free throws splashed through.
“I knew it was her,” Wright said with a chuckle. “I was kind of laughing in my mind, but I knew I had to focus and make the free throw.”
But Bryant hit two three-pointers, Ebanks dunked and Da’Sean Butler kissed a jumper off the glass to pull West Virginia within 48-47 with 11 minutes to play.
That’s when the Flyers really locked down defensively, holding the Mountaineers to just seven free throws over the next eight minutes to regain control.
“I don’t know after watching them on film that our guys knew they were as explosive as they were,” Huggins said.
Wright’s fifth dunk of the game, a LeBron-like hammer in transition, punctuated Dayton’s first NCAA Tournament win since an 88-86 triumph over Illinois in the first round in 1990.
“Those plays are heartbreaking to them,” Little said. “They think they are getting close, they are climbing back up and Chris drops the hammer.”
This was every bit the knockdown, drag-out, parking lot brawl expected from two teams run by hard-nosed coaches who stress defense, rebounding and grit as the only way to victory.
Gregory’s Flyers hounded every ball-handler, contested every pass and met each cutter through the lane with a sturdy shoulder and scowl.
“They were physical with us and they took us out of our running offense,” Huggins said.
West Virginia got here after enduring a brutal Big East season, then beating Notre Dame and Pittsburgh in the conference tournament to cement their bid. In two short years, Huggins has remade the Mountaineers from a team that relied on sneaky backdoor cuts and 3-point shooting under John Beilein to a physical, defensive-minded club in his own image.
The officials called things pretty close in the second half, to the frustration of two teams perfectly content to trade hand checks, hip pointers and the occasional elbow down low.
“We had a lot of chances to take the lead in the game,” Butler said. “Me myself, I had a bunch of opportunities to help the team go over the hump and be up by one or two, but just didn’t do it and we lost.”
Believe it or not, the Flyers used to be anything but a “mid” major. Dayton has played in the NCAA tournament 14 times, advanced to the regional semifinals six times and lost to mighty UCLA in the national championship in 1967.
Gregory was hired off Tom Izzo’s staff at Michigan State in 2004 to bring some consistency back to a program that had qualified for the tournament only twice the previous 15 seasons.
The Flyers made it to the tourney in Gregory’s first season, but missed the next five times before returning this year with a balanced team that regularly plays 12 to keep up its frenetic defensive pace.
And now they have a date with the defending national champions in the second round.
“It’s hard to even put into words right now, to be honest with you,” Gregory said.
Dayton was at its best in the first half against West Virginia, holding the Mountaineers to 32 percent shooting and forcing seven turnovers to take a 33-28 lead.
West Virginia’s two leading scorers — Butler and Alex Ruoff — both had off games against Dayton’s smothering defense. Butler finished with 13 points on 4-for-13 shooting and Ruoff had just nine while battling foul trouble.
“It hurts ’cause everything is over,” Ebanks said.