Nov. 7—As they walk down the ramp to Tom Blackburn Court at UD Arena, the Dayton Flyers pass John DiMatteo, who since at least 2016 has worked as a security guard in the same spot, where the ramp intersects with the hallway that leads to the media room.
DiMatteo raises both arms in the air and cheers the players. They greet him with high fives.
DiMatteo is still learning the names and faces this season because the team has seven new scholarship players and four new walk-ons. The same goes for most of the 13,407 fans who packed UD Arena for two exhibition games and the season opener Monday.
The Flyers themselves are learning about each other as well. They know their teammates' names and faces by now but playing together in a pressure environment with a fanbase hungry for winning dissecting every shot and turnover, that will take time to get used to.
Dayton's 63-47 victory against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in the first game of the 2023-24 season looked like so many openers over the years — a mix of good and bad and everything in between but with the same result as the 18 previous openers.
"We had jitterbugs in the first half a little bit," Dayton junior forward DaRon Holmes II said, "but we stayed resilient. This team was positive. Our chemistry was great. We just stayed the course. We ended up winning the game. This team is going to be very special if we can continue to do that."
Dayton was one of 12 Atlantic 10 Conference teams that opened the season on the first day of the college basketball season. Every team but the defending champion, Virginia Commonwealth, won. McNeese State beat VCU 76-65 in Richmond, Va., spoiling the debut of new coach Ryan Odom.
Upsets grab the headlines in March, but they happen all season. No. 4 Michigan State lost 79-76 to James Madison on Monday.
Two years ago, Dayton lost three straight games at home to lower-ranked opponents — UMass Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay — after winning its opener. On paper, SIUE should be better than any of those three teams. There was no guarantee Dayton would win this game, especially when it missed 12 of its first 13 3-point attempts and fell into a 24-16 hole.
The momentum turned with two minutes to play in the first half.
Kobe Elvis forced SIUE star guard Ray'Sean Taylor, who led his team with 14 points, to turn the ball over. Nate Santos came up with the loose ball. The Flyers pushed the ball ahead in transition. Santos gave the ball to Elvis, who passed it to Koby Brea, who missed his last 10 3-point attempts last season and his first two this season but got the roll on a shot from long range this time.
In the final minute of the half, Brea, who was celebrating his birthday, made another 3-pointer from the corner. Dayton took a 27-24 lead into halftime.
"That run that we made at the end of the first half, you could see the energy that we brought in to change the game," Santos said. "Resilience, toughness, I think that's what we showed."
Dayton outscored SIUE 36-23 in the second half and stretched its lead to as many as 18 points. There were good signs and bad signs for a team that will see its schedule get much tougher fast this season with the next two games coming against teams from the Big Ten (Northwestern on Friday) and Southeastern Conference (LSU on Nov. 16).
The good: — Holmes led Dayton with 19 points. He made his first 11 free throws before missing his final attempt. He improved his free-throw percentage from 58.6 as a freshman to 66.9 as a sophomore and hopes to make another jump this season. "The coaches make sure we're all locked in on our free throws," Holmes said.
—Dayton had 17 assists on 20 made field goals. In his first appearance for Dayton, Merrimack transfer Javon Bennett led the team with six assists and did not commit a turnover in 23 minutes.
—Buffalo transfer Isaac Jack, a sophomore forward, made all three of his field-goal attempts in a four-minute stretch in the second half. Freshman forward Petras Padegimas was also efficient, scoring six points on 3-of-4 shooting in 12 minutes.
—Elvis had a strong all-around game with nine points, five assists and five rebounds. — Robert Morris transfer Enoch Cheeks led the team in minutes played with just under 35 and had a team-high four steals to go with six points.
—The injury bug that haunted Dayton all of last season returned. Freshman guard Marvel Allen was the only scholarship player not in uniform because of an undisclosed injury. Starting point guard Malachi Smith, who has battled ankle injuries the last two seasons, hurt his knee in the first half after playing seven minutes and stayed in the locker room the rest of the game.
"We don't know anything," coach Anthony Grant said after the game. "We'll find out. Once we know, we'll let you know."
"He's going to be OK," Holmes said. "It's sad to see that, but he'll be OK. We're very positive that it's not going to be anything crazy. We'll see, and we're going to pray for him and be there for him."
—Dayton shot 21.7% (5 of 23) from 3-point range.
"That's basketball," Grant said. "These guys, they work really hard at it. Sometimes you're not going to make shots. I don't want to simplify it, but sometimes it's make or miss. I thought we got really good looks. We were 3 for 16 in the first half, and maybe two of them were rushed, but outside of that, we got shots that we're more than capable of making. I'm not looking at it and saying, 'Hey, why are we doing that?' We're going to have nights where we make a lot of 3s. I've got a lot of confidence in this team's ability to shoot the ball. Tonight wasn't one of them, and for them to be able to find a way to win on opening night, that's a great credit to them. To me, the story is what we did do. We defended at a high level. We did a great job rebounding."
Dayton at Northwestern, 8:30 p.m., BTN, 1290, 95.7