Former Dayton star Chris Johnson, who made his NBA debut this year with the Memphis Grizzlies, was introduced before the Xavier game Saturday and pranced around the court waving a rally towel and gyrating to the music being piped in.
A sellout crowd of 13,435 ate it up. And the players were energized by it, too.
“He’s played against this team and wanted to win just as bad as we did,” UD sophomore Matt Derenbecker said. “It’s great having a guy like that come back who’s been so successful and show that kind of passion. His presence here gave us another edge because he’s been through these hard-fought games.
“I know how hard it was for him to watch. He wanted to get out there and knock down shots and play some defense.”
The Flyers did quite well in those departments on their own, scoring 16 points on their first seven possessions to build a 10-point lead and hold on for a 70-59 victory.
Kevin Dillard, named the Blackburn-McCafferty MVP, scored 17 points to pace four players in double figures as the Flyers won for the seventh time in the last 10 games in the rivalry at UD Arena.
A dreary Atlantic 10 season, which had eroded the Flyers’ confidence, became a distant memory, at least for a day.
“At this time of year, you need to feel good about yourself. You need a reason to show up at practice and listen to the coach yell at you,” UD coach Archie Miller said. “The bottom line with this deal is, it’s not easy when you’re going through a season where you grind away, in particular when you’re dealing with some losses and negative momentum.
“I think our team needed a shot in the arm for a change. … We have purpose again. Winning cures a lot of evils.”
Subs Josh Benson (16 points), Derenbecker (10) and Jalen Robinson (nine points and seven rebounds) came up big for the Flyers (14-11, 4-7 A-10).
“I thought we dipped one toe in the pool rather than jump in,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “We gave them a lot of confidence early on. We didn’t get a stop in the first four minutes. We were playing catch up from that point on.
“There’s no shame in losing at Dayton. It’s a hard place to win. But the shame of it is, the first four minutes we weren’t who we needed to be.”
Freshman point guard Semaj Christon had a team-high 17 points for the Musketeers (14-10, 7-4), who are playing for a top-four seed in the A-10 tournament, while the Flyers are just trying to get there.
UD shot 50 percent from the field, made 21-of-24 free throws and battled to a 28-28 standoff in rebounding after getting blitzed on the boards by 18 at Xavier last month.
Ahead by 12 in the first half and by eight at halftime, the Flyers watched their lead dwindle to three after starting 1-for-9 from the field after the break.
But Derenbecker knocked down a 3-pointer in transition, the start of a 9-0 run that made it 51-39 with 9:22 left. UD fans screamed themselves hoarse the rest of the way and relished the chance to watch a game without having to nervously dig their fingernails into the armrests.
“It probably was the first time in a long time we were able to seize control on offense and get a nice cushion to finish the game,” Miller said.
Four of the Flyers’ A-10 losses have been by a combined 11 points.
“Any time you win a game like this, it’s always huge for the team’s morale,” Dillard said. “I felt like we did a good job of staying together through the ups and downs of the game.
“We’ve had adversity, of course. But at the same time, it’s not what happens, it’s how you react to it. For the most part, we’re staying positive. We’ve just got to let this carry us the rest of the season.”
Dayton at UMass, 1 p.m. Saturday, no TV, 95.7, 1290