By Paul Gotham
ST. BONAVENTURE, NY — St. Bonaventure head men’s basketball coach Mark Schmidt may not always believe in magic, but his team’s strength appeared last night as out of thin air.
For the better part of 30 minutes Saturday night, SBU’s stout defense looked more like a vegetable strainer than mop bucket as the University at Buffalo Bulls repeatedly found and passed through the obvious holes in the Bona defense.
Sure there were flashes of brilliance early. Marquise Simmons deflected a pass and led Chris Johnson into the open court for a layup. Then Eric Mosley stole a pass and fed Demitrius Conger for a thunderous tomahawk jam. Jordan Gathers took it himself with a steal and dunk.
The Bonnies looked like they would run away with the game. They took their largest lead of the game at 10 with just under five minutes to go in the first half.
Then the inexplicable happened. UB started finding those gaps and lanes and openings.
Led by Javon McCrea, Jarod Oldham and Tony Watson UB’s offense was a fifty-fifty proposition hitting 13-of-26 from the perimeter including seven-of-14 behind the arc in the first half. The ten-point lead evaporated.
Things didn’t get much better in the second stanza as the Bulls finished 13-of-24 from long range.
“Tonight it was more of defensive breakdown,” Schmidt said after his team’s 82-79 win. “Letting them shoot 13-for-24, a number of those shots were uncontested shots. That’s what we got to work on.”
But when it mattered most, SBU’s defense ended its disappearing act. On three occasions late in the game, UB called timeouts hoping to extend their lead. Each time the Bona defense responded.
With less than nine minutes remaining and the Bulls looking to add to a three-point edge, UB head coach Reggie Witherspoon called timeout. Twenty ticks remained on the shot clock and the ball out-of-bounds in the Bonaventure end. UB looked to have the advantage.
Instead, the Bonnies stiffened. Conger, Charlon Kloof, Johnson and Mosley forced the the Bulls to run their offense further from the basket. At the same time, the 6-8, 230 pound Simmons battled the 6-7, 250 pound McCrea in the paint.
UB worked the ball into right corner before getting ball reversal. With each pass and catch, the Bulls looked inside to McCrea, but each time there was Simmons maintaining position between his opponent and the ball. The two shifted and pivoted in and out of the lane seeking to gain leverage on the other. Finally, McCrea relented, stepping out on the perimeter to receive a pass. By that time it was too late, and the buzzer sounded for a shot clock violation.
UB maintained its lead. With 2:18 to go, the Bulls called another timeout looking to make it a two-possession game. Once again, UB had the ball out-of-bounds in front of its bench. Again the Bulls moved the ball from side to side looking for the gaps which came so easily earlier in the game. The Bonaventure pressure forced another turnover.
But making matters worse, the Bonnies inexplicably lost their touch from the free throw line. No one player represented these struggles more than Johnson who connected 86 percent of the time last year. On this night, he was four-of-ten including two misses with 1:20 to go. One was a head-scratching lane violation when Johnson lost a handle on the ball.
Again the defense compensated. Conger stepped into a passing lane and finished with a dunk at the opposite end.
“I looked at the play and just tried to anticipate it,” Conger said of his steal. “Luckily he threw it.”
Still, with under a minute to go UB had the lead and the ball. This time Watson used a high ball screen to gain an advantage. As the 6-2 got to the paint, Matthew Wright made the slightest gesture as if he intended to stop the penetration. Watson picked up his dribble, got caught in the air, and Wright intercepted the pass. He went end-to-end and scored the eventual winning basket with finger roll at the rim.
“We watched a lot of tape. We emphasize a lot of jabbing if your man doesn’t have the ball,” Wright explained. “On the last play, I helped a little earlier , and it forced him to make a decision in mid-air, and I was able to steal the ball. That’s just one of the things we work on in practice.”
One more possession and one more stand. Simmons did the trick this time intercepting an Oldham pass attempt.
“We try to take the flash away as much as we can,” Schmidt added. “Matthew is talking about the bluffing part of it. We work on that stuff all the time. It’s not like we’re doing anything magical. Everybody bluffs especially when there is a shooter in the corner.”
For the game, the Bonnies converted 19 UB miscues into 21 points.
St. Bonaventure held opponents under 42 percent from the field and 33 percent behind the arc a year ago. Through five games this year, they maintained similar numbers (42 percent from the field and 36 from threes).
Five of St. Bonaventure’s first six games have been decided by five points or less. The Bonnies have pulled the rabbit out of the hat for three wins in those games.
The Bonnies host Siena Tuesday night in a nationally televised game. A 9 pm tip is scheduled.