Sunday, March 16, 2003

Atlantic 10: Dayton stops Temple

By Joe Kay
The Associated Press

DAYTON - Without a star player or a tournament pedigree, the Flyers have to rely on their home court and togetherness to pull out games.

They did it again Saturday, winning their first Atlantic 10 tournament title in front of thousands of exuberant fans. Now, one of the country's best home teams can pack for the ultimate road show.

Sean Finn scored a career-high 20 points as No. 22 Dayton put the finishing touch on its best home season, beating Temple 79-72 for its first tournament title of any kind since 1990.

The Flyers (24-5) are headed back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000, winning the conference's automatic berth in their favorite setting.

Thousands of red-shirted fans exulted as players took turns cutting down the net, then waved to the crowd.

"They had a lot to do with us getting here," said Brooks Hall, one of four Flyers in double figures. "Temple made a run and got close, but the crowd stayed with us and got us over the hump."

The Flyers went 17-1 at home, their highest victory total in any of UD Arena's 33 seasons. Most of the 11,537 fans Saturday wore red shirts and provided the home-court advantage that was the backdrop to the season.

For Temple, it was a case of too little, too late, leaving the Owls (15-15) out of the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. Coach John Chaney wiped away tears after the game as he talked about his team's character.

After opening with five losses for the first time in their 107 years of basketball and stumbling to 3-11, the Owls found their mettle and their famed matchup zone defense.

"I just feel badly for them," Chaney said. "We just played against a better team and found ourselves behind."

In the title game, their matchup zone met its match - a balanced team with no stars but a lot of versatility and a knack for playing together. The Flyers have had four players in double figures 19 times this season, including each of their last five games.

"We won a lot of close games this year, and I think it was because we have such a balanced team," Hall said. "When you have only one or two go-to guys, it makes it difficult to get the ball to them, and they usually have to force shots."

In that sense, the Flyers play more like Musketeers than No. 10 Xavier, which relies on David West and struggled when Temple dug in and shut him down in the semifinals. The Owls had 14 steals and forced 20 Xavier turnovers as they advanced to the title game for the third time in four years.

The Flyers' rapid passes kept the matchup zone moving. The Owls didn't have a steal and forced only three turnovers as Dayton pulled ahead 39-24 at halftime and held on.

Finn, a 6-foot-11 center, made his first five shots, receiving one nifty pass after another from a driving guard.

"They've got a great zone," Finn said. "Usually they make it tough to score, like with West yesterday. Our guards did a great job attacking the zone. When they get in and make a great pass, anybody can finish it."

The lead stretched to 17 early in the second half, before Dayton had its usual letdown. The Flyers wasted a 19-point lead before beating No. 25 St. Joseph's in the semifinals, and let Temple get as close as five in the closing minutes.

That's when the home-court advantage came into play. Fans were on their feet chanting, "Go Dayton Flyers!" after Brian Polk made two free throws to cut it to 70-65 with 1:37 left.

Temple's David Hawkins came up short on a driving shot, and Finn dunked at the other end to emphatically end the comeback. Dayton went 7-of-8 from the line the rest of the way to hold on.

Ramod Marshall added 16 points and 10 assists for Dayton, which had 20 assists and only 11 turnovers.

Polk made his first six shots in the game, including four 3-pointers, and finished with 22. Hawkins added 20.

Chaney had his players stay on the court and watch the Flyers receive their trophies, hoping they'll get some inspiration for next season and make it back to the NCAA tournament.

"Before I got here, that's what they were used to doing," said Hawkins, a junior. "Once you get there, you always want to get back. You've got that fire in your heart."

Without one dominating player, Dayton gets a little bit from everyone. Many did their part during a game-opening 14-0 run that featured baskets by four different players.

The Flyers played a little defense, too. Temple missed its first five shots and two free throws before Alex Wesby hit a 3-pointer at 14:41.

Finn had 14 points - three shy of his career high - on 6-of-7 shooting in the first half. The Flyers made five passes to free up Marshall for a 3-pointer that made it 44-27 early in the second half, Dayton's biggest lead of the game.

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