Dayton 68, Mississippi 63
A season that started with such promise for Dayton is ending in quite a flourish.
Chris Johnson scored 22 points, including five key free throws down the stretch, and the Flyers held off Mississippi 68-63 in the NIT semifinals Tuesday night.
Marcus Johnson added 12 for the Flyers (24-12), who slowed down Mississippi's high-scoring offense and advanced to the championship game for the first time since winning their second NIT title in 1968.
``I think we showed a lot of character. We know we could have easily given up,'' said Chris Johnson, who also grabbed nine rebounds. ``We have an opportunity to still do something special here.''
Next up, third-seeded Dayton has a chance to end a disappointing year with a championship.
Picked to win the Atlantic 10 Conference before the season, the Flyers faded down the stretch, finished seventh in the standings and missed the NCAA tournament. But now, they'll play Thursday night against 2009 national champion North Carolina, which edged Rhode Island 68-67 in overtime in the late semifinal.
``We have those seven seniors, and we've had some obstacles and ups and downs this year,'' Dayton coach Brian Gregory said. ``The one thing you always want for your seniors is to go out on a high note. And they have been able to do that. They have been able to rally the troops.''
Terrico White had 19 points for the second-seeded Rebels (24-11), eliminated in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden for the second time in three years. Ole Miss, beaten by eventual champion Ohio State in 2008, has never been to the title game.
``The game was swinging our way with defense and turnovers and stuff like that. We just didn't really make the plays to win,'' White said.
With New York Giants quarterback and former Ole Miss star Eli Manning sitting in the second row, near the Rebels' bench, Mississippi's Murphy Holloway had a chance to tie it at 64 with 35.8 seconds left. But he missed the second of two free throws, and the Rebels never scored again.
London Warren hit one of two free throws with 23.7 seconds remaining, extending Dayton's lead to two. Trevor Gaskins drove through the lane for Ole Miss but came up short on a twisting layup, and the Flyers grabbed the rebound.
``I for sure thought he was going to make it,'' Chris Johnson said.
Chris Johnson's two free throws made it 67-63 with 11.2 seconds to play. On the other end, London Warren knocked the ball out of Chris Warren's hands and out of bounds. Chris Johnson then stole the inbounds pass, got fouled and hit one of two free throws for the final margin.
``We are playing our best basketball of the year right now. Guys are fresh. Guys are playing hard. We are playing with great energy,'' said Gregory, who improved to 6-1 in the NIT.
Chris Wright, Dayton's leading scorer and rebounder, was held to nine points on 1-of-9 shooting. He pulled down 12 rebounds, though.
Chris Warren had 15 points and Holloway 12 for the Rebels, who averaged 88 points in their first three NIT games. They shot only 33.9 percent in this one, including 6 of 23 (26.1 percent) from 3-point range.
``Offensively we struggled with rhythm, which is a credit to Dayton, putting a lot of pressure on the ball,'' Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said. ``We didn't make plays. It's been our M.O. all season. It has never been a lack of effort or competitive drive. It's really just leaving a few plays on the floor, and tonight was another example of that.''
Ole Miss also was hurt by a technical foul on freshman Reginald Buckner with 3:09 left. He and Chris Johnson got tied up going for a loose ball, and Buckner threw a right forearm to Chris Johnson's throat as they finally untangled.
Wright separated the players before Chris Johnson hit both free throws, pushing Dayton's lead to 64-58.
Holloway then scored on a jump hook, and Chris Warren hit a pair of free throws to get the Rebels within two with 1:04 to go.
``For us to figure out a way to kind of pull that thing out at the end speaks volumes for our guys' mental toughness. They just kind of kept fighting,'' Gregory said. ``It's never a dull moment sometimes with our team, but their heart and the way they work has kind of just lifted us over the edge and pushed us along right now.''