Every Cinderella story needs an unlikely hero. Dayton's Kendall Pollard may have been the unlikeliest of all.
The seldom-used freshman made all but one of his shots en route to 12 points and Jordan Sibert scored a team-high 18 more, as the 11th-seeded Flyers defeated No. 10 Stanford, 82-72, in their Sweet 16 matchup in Memphis.
Dayton (26-10) is just the sixth No. 11 seed in history to make the Elite Eight and first since Virginia Commonwealth in 2011. Eleventh-seeded teams do have success past the Elite Eight, though, holding a 3-2 record in the round, per Bracket Science. The Flyers will have to trek through their fourth straight major-conference opponent in the winner of UCLA-Florida, but they looked the part on Thursday.
Evan Daniels of Scout.com noted how improved Dayton was from its regular-season form:
Tremendous job by Archie Miller. I saw Dayton play in person a month ago. Wouldn't have guessed this. Look like completely different team.— Evan Daniels (@EvanDaniels) March 28, 2014
Playing before what at times sounded like a home crowd, Dayton held the lead for the final 33 minutes by maintaining a collected composure and executing Archie Miller's game plan. The Dayton coach, who recently inked a contract through 2019, adjusted away from his typical down-tempo style and implored his guys to attack early in the shot clock.
After Arizona won later on Thursday evening, SportsCenter reminded everyone of this interesting tidbit:
John & Barb Miller take a bow. Your sons, Archie and Sean, are 1st brothers to coach teams in same Elite 8. pic.twitter.com/WzVrAvl3x1— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 28, 2014
The plan worked, and Dayton was able to keep Stanford scrambling by going to its deep bench. Twelve different Flyers got minutes, each of which contributed to the win in one way or another—none more so than Pollard.
Rarely used as anything more than a sub designed for a quick breather, Pollard came out firing in the biggest game of his life. He worked inside to draw contact and played with a consistent and infectious energy. After scoring a total of two points in the first two games of the tournament, he had eight in the first half en route to a career-high 12 on 5-of-6 shooting.
Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated noted just how unexpected Pollard's triumph was:
In his previous 17 games Dayton freshman Kendall Pollard scored a total of 24 points. He has 12 so far tonight.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 28, 2014
Sibert, an Ohio State transfer, played a major role in keeping the offense humming throughout the game. The team's leading scorer during the regular season, he kept Stanford's defense darting in his direction by knocking down open jumpers. His four threes were one fewer than the entire Stanford roster.
The Cardinal, so rigidly structured and defense-minded during the opening week, crumbled on both ends of the floor. Stefan Nastic's dominance down low was mitigated by foul trouble throughout both halves, as he finished with 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting. The Stanford big could consistently get positioning any time he wanted, but the team's comeback effort halted when he fouled out midway through the second half.
They tried finding ways to work within the triangle when Nastic left, but Chasson Randle's struggles from the floor kept spacing cramped. The Cardinal were one of the most three-averse teams remaining in the tournament, per Ken Pomeroy, and their actions looked stilted without a primary big man. That allowed Dayton to open the floor and get out in transition, especially during a dominant first half.
Working to speed up the tempo, the Flyers' first 20 minutes were defined by their ability push Stanford out of its comfort zone. The Cardinal were able to frustrate both Kansas and New Mexico by locking down in the half-court with a matchup zone—something Dayton's tempo and ball movement broke consistently.
Handling slow-footed Stanford defenders, the Flyers found themselves wide open for shots all over the floor. They hit six first-half threes, more than they hit in the entire game against Ohio State and one fewer than their total against Syracuse.
The key for Dayton was a team-oriented attack. Quick-strike passes led to 19 assists (more than both previous victories) and left Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins scrambling for answers. No Dayton player scored more than eighteen points, but eleven different players scored points—seven of which had five or more.
Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports noted the similarities between the hot starts of Dayton and Baylor:
Dayton has 13 assists on its 15 field goals. Wisconsin has seven assists on its eight field goals.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 28, 2014
Stanford's first half, meanwhile, was mired in frustration. Though the game was rarely separated by much early, a late Dayton run left the Cardinal bench exhibiting disappointing body language. Dawkins picked up a technical foul while arguing contact and players walked with their heads hung back to the bench. It provided a stark dichotomy to Dayton, which fed off the crowd's energy.
While there were moments of hope for Stanford in the second half, the story essentially played out the same way. The Cardinal pulled within four points early in the half thanks to a strong run from Nastic, as he controlled the paint with his size and touch. But Sibert and Pollard scored on back-to-back possessions to push Dayton's lead back to nine at 54-45 with just under 14 minutes left. Nastic then picked up his fourth foul seconds later and Stanford was never really back in the contest again.
Eamonn Brennan of ESPN noted what a huge loss it was for Stanford:
Big ovation from Stanford fans for Stefan Nastic after his fifth foul. Save the copious hackery tonight, he's been great.— Eamonn Brennan (@eamonnbrennan) March 28, 2014
Dayton held a consistent double-digit lead the rest of the way, only dipping below the 10-point mark on nondescript Cardinal runs. The Flyers have been to two previous Elite Eights, the most recent in 1984. They've been to the Final Four just once, during their 1967 national runner-up campaign.
Sibert noted after the game how proud he was to have made it this far, per the Associated Press:
Dayton's Jordan Sibert right after win over Stanford: "It's amazing to be in this position right now. ... It's just a blessing."— AP Top 25 (@AP_Top25) March 28, 2014
Although Miller and his team deserve to bask in their accomplishment, only more work lies ahead. Florida and UCLA have looked like national championship contenders in their first two victories, and the Gators are the top overall seed. Dayton can highlight its wins over defense-first teams in Ohio State and Syracuse, but Billy Donovan has built a two-way juggernaut that's run off 28 straight victories.
That's tomorrow's problem. For now, Dayton gets to wear its glass slipper well into the night.
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