ALBANY, N.Y. -- Step 1 in making the Elite Eight, according to Dayton coach Jim Jabir: Don't pass it to the bird. Not even if he's wide open in the corner.
Jabir's seventh-seeded Flyers continued their bracket-busting ways in the NCAA tournament Saturday, earning the school's first berth in the regional finals -- and a date with mighty UConn here on Monday night (ESPN/WatchESPN, 7 ET) -- with a workmanlike 82-66 victory over Louisville.
Mostly workmanlike, anyway. Jabir's A-10 upstarts, who've become this tournament's Cinderellas with consecutive upsets over second-seed Kentucky and third-seeded Louisville, for the first time this March betrayed some jitters. The normally smooth ball handlers turned it over 14 times in the first half against the Cardinals. A series of uncharacteristically wild Flyer passes included an outlet from Ally Malott to Jabir on the sidelines, and two others to an empty space in the corner near where Louisville's large red costumed mascot stood.
In the locker room at halftime, Jabir addressed the gaffes with his crimson-clad squad. "I said, Look, I know the bird is red, but he's got a yellow beak, and the only person in the building with a bigger beak than that bird was me, and I wasn't playing."
The Brooklyn native got a laugh out of his players. "They were able to chill out a little bit," Jabir said. "I think it was stage fright. Ally's throwing the ball to me, and we hit the bird twice, and we were rushing."
Yet the Flyers still managed to go into half leading 30-29. Blame it on Louisville's horrible shooting day, in which the Cards finished just 23-for-73 from the field. "Just a bad night," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said.
Or credit Dayton's defense, which has held opponents to a cumulative 36 percent shooting on the season.
"I've been very proud of our field goal percentage defense all year," Jabir said. "To hold a team to 31 percent is great. I'm not gonna say that we were the reason. They had a lot of open shots, but at the end of the day we were staying in front of them. You can read that any way you want."
In any case, Dayton took care of the ball in the second half, turning it over just five more times. "The Kentucky game really prepared us for this game," guard Andrea Hoover said.
Backcourt mate Amber Deane agreed. Kentucky, she said, "was a great segue for us. We just had to have a smart mindset, to try to control the ball and not waste any possessions, but not defer from being assertive and being aggressive as possible, because that's the way we play."
While taking care of the ball in the second half, Hoover (26 points) and Deane (15 points) took care of business at the hoop as well. Time and again, Hoover fearlessly attacked the basket, drew fouls on the Cards and converted free throws. All 15 of her free throws. Hoover's perfect performance at the line was the best in tournament history for a player with more than 12 attempts, and part of a 26-for-30 effort at the foul line for the Flyers. That followed an insane 28-of-31 free throw performance at Kentucky.
"Hoover's the definition of grit," Malott said. "We have so much trust when the ball's in her hands."
As teammates started to get sentimental, Jabir interjected. "I think she's a rockhead."
"I think he's a rockhead," Hoover replied.
And now the rockheads, with their bird-brained passes, have a shot at Connecticut. UConn dismantled Texas 105-54 in the early game Saturday, a victory that pushed the Huskies' season winning streak to 34 and their NCAA streak to 15.
Behind all-everything forward Breanna Stewart's 31-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist day, UConn handed coach Geno Auriemma his 100th NCAA tourney win.
"That's a lotta wins," Auriemma said. "We didn't win anything the first couple of times we made the tournament."
He also liked how his team performed, especially when the Huskies opened the second half with an 18-4 spurt to make the game 70-28. Even the hyper-critical Auriemma admitted he enjoyed watching his team perform in that stretch. "That's pretty good," he said.
Dayton knows it will be given little chance on Monday, but that's OK. The Flyers have been underestimated all tournament, and they're unlikely to feel any pressure now. These Flyers have taken their program to new heights, and they're starting to feel like they belong up here.
"Our guys have continually stepped up and stepped up and matured, and handled themselves better and better with every challenge," Jabir said. "And the challenges keep getting bigger and bigger."
None bigger than Monday. And that's a good thing.