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Sixteen again! After 30 years, Dayton returns to the Sweet 16

The Dayton Flyers celebrated on the court at the First Niagara Center as if they had won the Billion Dollar Bracket challenge.

In a way, they did. They have the perfect bracket right now — perfect in their minds, perfect in their dreams, perfect in every way for the hundreds of Dayton basketball fans to who drove north to Buffalo to see them reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years.

An impossible dream back in January — the season perched on the brink of collapse — came true Saturday as No. 11 seed Dayton beat No. 3 seed Syracuse 55-53 in the third round of the NCAA tournament. The Dayton Flyers might have posed in front of one of the many Buffalo statues on the way out of town because they made this town theirs this week with two of the biggest victories in the history of the program in the space of three days.

Dayton (25-10) will now walk in Memphis, Tenn. — after their flight there this week — and will face No. 2 Kansas or No. 10 Stanford in the regional semifinals Thursday. Stanford and Kansas meet today in the third round.

“It means everything,” junior Jordan Sibert said. “To be able to get here with my teammates is just a blessing.”

“It’s a great feeling,” sophomore Jalen Robinson said. “We worked so hard for this. We showed the world we can compete with anybody. As long as we stick with it and never fracture and continue to stick with our system, anything can happen.”

For the second straight game, the Dayton Flyers watched a shot go up at the buzzer, knowing if it missed, they would advance. Dayton sophomore Dyshawn Pierre made 1-of-2 free throws with seven seconds remaining. Then Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis took a 3-pointer with two seconds left. It was off the mark.

“That thing was on the line, and he went for the win,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said. “The thing that went through my head was the game at Pitt, when I saw that highlight on SportsCenter 7,000 times, when he banged the 3 on Pitt. Similar situation. You don’t have any timeouts. You’re trying to get organized.”

Once again, just as they did Thursday when Aaron Craft’s last shot missed and they beat Ohio State 60-59, the Dayton Flyers piled on top of each other. Senior Devin Oliver raised both arms in the air, his teammates going crazy behind him. Some of the players then ran to the section packed with UD fans and pointed at them, knowing the victory meant as much to the Flyer Faithful as it did to the Flyers themselves.

The Dayton Flyers won this game by sticking to what got them here. Eleven different players saw action. Eight scored. No one had more than Pierre’s 14. Sibert had 10.

The pace slowed as Dayton tried to figure out Syracuse’s zone. The zone was good. It was tough.

Yet Dayton, which never plays zone and always man-to-man, showed defensive prowess of its own, holding the Orange to 39-percent shooting and 0-of-10 shooting from long range.

“The defense was great,” Miller said, “but you could also play them 10 times, and I don’t think that some of those shots would be missed. So a little bit of luck is on your head, and you need that in this tournament.”

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