By: Keith Raad – Sports Writer
Amid a sea of nearly 200 red-clothed fans, eyes fixed on flat-screen televisions in the Time Warner Cable Flight Deck of the UD Arena, sat 12 girls.
Over in the corner, leaning against the bar, was their head coach and his staff.
After a flash on the screens, in an instant, the sea of red exploded into a roar at the sight on the television graphic, and the 12 reasons for why they did so suddenly became one.
The University of Dayton women’s basketball team found themselves looking at their matchup as they secured the best NCAA Tournament seed in school history.
“Well I’m a pessimist so I thought we were going to get like a 10-seed,” head coach Jim Jabir said with a smile. “I thought maybe we’d go to Toledo because it’s close, but I’m surprised at our seed. It speaks to the program and the respect that we’ve gained.”
Playing No. 11 University of Florida Sunday, March 23, at 3 p.m. on ESPN, No. 6 seed Dayton will travel to University Park, Pa., on the campus of site-host Penn State University.
Though they finished the season 23-7, and are advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive season, Dayton will be playing with a chip on its shoulder.
“A lot of excitement, shock and relief,” said sophomore point guard Amber Deane. “We wanted to win that [Atlantic] 10 Championship so badly and we felt that that may have hurt our chances to get a better seed, but this is great.”
After falling to Fordham University in the A-10 tournament title game March 9, in Richmond, Va., Dayton met disappointment right in the face.
“The edge got there as soon as that buzzer went off against Fordham,” Jabir said. “We talked about it. We got off the bus after Richmond and we just ripped them. I said, ‘If you’re not going to do things our way, if you’re not going to be aggressive and sharp, you can go somewhere else.’”
It was a disappointing experience, but one that leaves them with a lasting image during the week of practice.
“I’ve let them know in certain terms that we did not show up [against Fordham],” Jabir said. “I keep telling them, ‘Fordham has our trophy,’ and every time there’s and down moment, I’m yelling at them: ‘Fordham has our trophy.’”
For Deane, the loss, and that image, gave the Flyers something to feed on.
“I felt a lot of disappointment in myself,” Deane said. “I know we could have won that game. We beat them earlier in the season here. We didn’t score enough points, didn’t play good enough defense, but we get to play this game and get to take our anger out.”
The Gators, who finished 19-12 overall this season, had one First Team All-Southeastern Conference winner in senior guard Jaterra Bonds and one All-Freshman accolade with guard/forward Ronni Williams.
The SEC matchup is one Dayton faced during the regular season, but against Vanderbilt University.
“Vanderbilt was a very aggressive and tough team,” Jabir said. “We learned a lot of lessons when we played them. We’re going to see a lot of athleticism on Sunday and we’ll be prepared. I think our schedule has helped us get to a place of preparation and hopefully we’ll be ready to go.”
Should Dayton advance in the opening game, they could face a matchup against host and No. 3 seed Penn State.
Deane said she recalls the experience she gained from last year’s NCAA Tournament trip. The Flyers, who earned a higher seed than their opponent, St. John’s University, had to make the trip and face the Red Storm on their home court. Dayton narrowly escaped in double overtime 96-90.
“I thought we handled last year really well being that ‘away team,’” Deane said. “We played so much on the road this year and even a couple of times in Pennsylvania. I don’t really mind it. I don’t think our team really minds it. We’ve just got to tie our shoes up and go out there and give it all we have.”
After defeating the Red Storm, the Flyers matched up with the SEC’s University of Kentucky, falling 84-70.
This time, the mindset is different.
“I think it’s important that we don’t show up just happy to be there, but to play with great determination and make a statement in who we are and who we want to be,” Jabir said.
Now with the respect of a No. 6 seed, Dayton goes from enjoying the journey to controlling it.
“As soon as I’m done with you guys we’re going back to the offices and pulling up tape and start breaking it down,” Jabir said. “We’ll devise a plan and get ready.”
They’ll take that edge on their side as well.
“I think that’s good because we play better when we have a little bit of an edge and have something to prove,” Jabir said. “They’ve responded to that really well.”