ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — The only way Dayton was going to the NCAA tournament was to win the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.
The defending NIT champion Flyers are now only one game away.
Chris Wright had 17 points, 15 rebounds and five assists and Dayton advanced to the championship game for the first time since 2004 with a 64-61 victory over stubborn Saint Joseph’s on Saturday.
“At the tournament, if you lose a game, you go home,” Wright said. “We know that. Coach told us to pack for Sunday before we got here. You’ve got to have faith in yourself and we do.”
Chris Johnson added 19 points for the ninth-seeded Flyers (22-12), who will play in the final on Sunday.
“This is the chance of a lifetime, you can’t ask for anything more than that,” Wright said. “The NCAA is something you live for. I can’t explain it more than that.”
The Flyers last went to the NCAAs in 2009.
“The last three weeks we’ve re-established the pride in how we play, and that’s good,” Dayton coach Brian Gregory said. “Our defensive intensity is back.”
The Flyers were outstanding defending Saint Joseph’s guards Langston Galloway and Carl Jones. While they combined for 27 points, they were limited to 8 of 28 shooting from the field. Hawks forward Ronald Roberts also was limited, with three points and three rebounds.
“It’s 40 more minutes to go,” Johnson said. “We have to play harder, and better than we did today.”
Galloway had 16 points and Idris Hilliard 15 for Saint Joseph’s (11-22), which reached the semifinals with overtime wins over George Washington and Duquesne in the first two rounds.
“We were a play not good enough,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “We belonged in the game and the guys gave us 40 minutes of everything we had.”
Down 11 with 5:33 left, the Hawks pulled within two, 63-61, with 8.8 seconds to play on two free throws by Galloway. Dayton’s Josh Parker hit a free throw with 5.8 seconds left for the final margin.
Saint Joseph’s had a couple of chances to tie, but turned the ball over on an inbounds play in front of their own bench with 2.8 seconds to go.
Jones, who was limited to 11 points on 4 of 16 shooting, missed a three-quarter court length shot at the final buzzer after a late steal.
“Our togetherness and working hard in practice is what we’ll take from this run,” Jones said. “We’ve learned that.”
Saint Joseph’s was trying to make the conference final for the first time since 2008.
“Give Phil and his staff a ton of credit,” Gregory said. “Earlier in the year, it was tough sledding. But they just kept playing and playing. And they’re the best 11-21 team that I’ve ever seen.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)