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Tom Archdeacon: Comeback becomes part of UD's storied lore -- 'People will be talking about this in 40 years'

Mar. 23—SALT LAKE CITY — Eric Spina realized he and the rest of the Delta Center crowd — not to mention a national TV audience — had witnessed a comeback for the ages late Thursday afternoon when the Dayton Flyers overcame a 17-point deficit in the final 7 minutes 14 seconds of their NCAA Tournament opener to stun Nevada, 63-60.

"It was one for the history books," the University of Dayton president — still incredulous, but oh so proud — said 24 hours later. "I guarantee you, people will be talking about this in 40 years.

"The kids in school now will be telling their kids and grandkids about it."

The Flyers overcame the fifth largest deficit in the annals of the NCAA Tournament and in the process became part of the storied lore of a UD basketball program that goes back 121 years.

The Comeback now joins The Shot, when Ed Young's buzzer beater shocked No. 3 DePaul at UD Arena in in 1984, and The Game, when Donnie May made 16 of 22 field goals, including an NCAA-record 13 straight and pulled down 15 rebounds to carry his Flyers team past North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament semifinal in 1967.

Thursday's resurrection now stands alongside Roosevelt Chapman's 41-point mastery of mighty Oklahoma in the 1984 NCAA Tournament; Donald Smith's Arena record 53 points against Loyola in 1973 and big Henry Finkel's 122-point outburst in three games of the 1966 Tournament.

There's also Vee Sanford's running bank shot heroics with 3.4 seconds left to oust Ohio State in the 2014 NCAA Tournament; Jordan Sibert's go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute against Boise State in the First Four in 2015; Bobby Joe Hooper's 20-foot jumper with 4 seconds left in overtime to edge Western Kentucky in the 1967 Tournament and keep alive the run to the title game against the Lew Alcinder-led UCLA Bruins; and there's that indelible image, captured by a Madison Square Garden photographer, of Bill Chmielewski wearing the NIT loving cup trophy he received as MVP upside down on his head like a helmet after leading the Flyers to NIT championship in 1962.

UD athletics director Neil Sullivan agreed with Spina, saying the improbable comeback against Nevada was "really a historic performance" and that "at Dayton we take the past pretty seriously.

"We don't live in the past. We move on to the next thing. There's always a new player, the next great team. But we do take seriously the shoulders we stand on and we respect that, whether it's with different players or the different coaches or figures (administrators) like Tom Frericks, Tom Blackburn, or Don Donoher."

Sullivan said he knew the Flyers players wanted to be remembered for more than that before the left Salt Lake, but "over time they'll recognize how Dayton cares about its history and the players and teams that made it."

Two of the stars of Thursday's comeback — Koby Brea, who hit three three-pointers in a five-minute span and Nate Santos, who closed out the game with seven of the Flyers' final eight points — admitted Friday they still weren't quite able to put the moment full perspective, especially since they had to quickly switch their attention to preparing for Saturday's second-round matchup with No. 2 seed Arizona.

But they, like everyone closely connected to the program, couldn't help but realize the way the team's efforts Thursday had captured people's imaginations.

"I couldn't keep up with all the notes and messages I got after the game," Sullivan said. "They were hundreds of them."

It was the same for Spina: "A lot of people from the university and the community sent me text messages. So did a lot of people from my previous life who know I work at Dayton and wanted to tell me how impressed they were with our team.

"I've seen a lot of basketball. I was at Syracuse for 28 years (before Dayton). But in some ways, this was the most improbable, the most exciting moment I've witnessed.

"It's the proudest I've ever been of any team."

"In a game like that, where they were written off by everybody, they showed determination, and grit and resiliency at the end."

He thought about that for a moment and then chuckled: "We keep talking about their toughness, but they also played some great basketball at the end. They were hitting big shots and playing incredible defense.

"And when they won, they were jumping up and down and hugging each other. They celebrated the right way. There was no mugging for the cameras, no taunting the other team.

"They did it with honor and integrity...and, of course, with that grit.

"They did it the Dayton way."

The Flyers basketball program and the school itself could not have hired someone to produce a better ad campaign selling UD.

"That was as good of exposure as the university could get," Spina said.

Sullivan said it was good for the school, the students, the fans and the town and he thinks it especially resonated because it represented a comeback that was bigger than just the game:

"Sure, it's about overcoming that big deficit, but really, it's about making a comeback that goes all the back to March of 2020.

"Theres been a considerable amount of adversities the past few years and, in a way, this was coming back from all that."

The COVID pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament just as the Obi Toppin-led, 29-2 Flyers were about to land a No. 1 seed.

Twice in the past three years the Flyers have missed the NCAA Tournament field by one game. And there was the personal tragedy head coach Anthony Grant, his wife Chris and their family had to deal with when their 20-year-old daughter died 22 months ago.

Finally, this year, the Flyers lost all-conference point guard Malachi Smith to a season ending injury seven minutes into the opening game.

Then Thursday — in UD's first NCAA Tournament game in seven seasons — the Flyers found themselves trailing by 17 on the national stage.

Sullivan admitted he initially wanted the team just to keep fighting against the deficit, but he never envisioned such a miraculous comeback. But soon UD was scoring and getting defensive stops and he said the whole arena could sense the shifting of momentum.

The Flyers had crawled out of 15-point hole against LSU in November this season and came back from 17 down against VCU and won in overtime in the last home game of the season.

A few of the UD players claim they never doubted they'd come back. They said they all believed in each other and have bought into the Grant mantra: "The sum is greater than the individual parts."

Spina believed that mindset began last summer when the Flyers assembled a team with several new players — both transfer portal additions and incoming freshmen — to build around a returning nucleus that featured 6-foot-10 DaRon Holmes II, who would get All American honors this season; guard Kobe Elvis; and Brea, the nation's top three-point shooter.

"It began with that summer trip to France and Spain," Spina said. "Everyone knew it and the coach said it: it was about bringing the players together. And that team you saw come back against Nevada was a team that was together."

As the Flyers roared back on a 17-0 run of their own to tie the game with two minutes left, Spina was in the stands with current and former trustees and some longtime supporters of the program.

And when the clock hit zeros and the Flyers had pulled off the unthinkable, he and the others were all joyously hugging each other.

"Right then I wasn't the president of the university, I was there as a fan of the team and a member of Flyer Nation," Spina said. "So was everyone else and it was just... thrilling."

Everyone had just seen Flyer lore in the making.

Everyone had witnessed a comeback for the history books.