ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — After roaring back from a 16-point first half deficit and tying the game in the final seconds of regulation to force overtime, this was a game St. Bonaventure needed to win.
La Salle, the only team in the Atlantic 10 Conference to defeat both VCU and Butler this season, were on their heels. The Bonnies trailed by three with just 2.8 seconds left when Eric Mosley was fouled on a 3-point attempt, giving him the chance to tie the game.
Mosley missed two of three free throws but with 1.8 seconds, Demitrius Conger received a long inbounds pass from Matthew Wright, turned and fired.
“It felt good,” Conger said after his 3-pointer went off back iron and bounced loudly in a stunned and quiet Reilly Center. “That’s the game.”
Conger’s three point look from the right wing would have forced overtime, but instead La Salle escaped with a 69-66 victory at the Reilly Center where St. Bonaventure (10-11, 4-6) has now lost five of six games.
This latest loss is the third consecutive to La Salle (17-6, 7-3) spanning the past three years, but this one hurts more than most.
“Our guys showed some toughness,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. “But at the same time it’s frustrating being so close and not being able to finish.”
Not being able to finish may come down to being the theme of the year for this Bona squad.
Bona has had no problem playing up to their competition, holding late leads against Ohio, Canisius and Xavier while playing VCU and Saint Louis tough. However, the problem has come down to finishing off a team, leaving the Bonnies in a precarious situation.
With just six games remaining in the A-10 season, each game is important and a win against the Explorers could have propelled them to the finish. And for a moment, it seemed just where this game was heading.
Mirroring last year’s February classic against St. Joseph’s, the Bonnies erased a nine-point deficit with just 6:24 remaining to tie the game on a Mosley mid-range jumper to force overtime. But the jolt of energy it gave the crowd did not carry over to the overtime period, leaving the Bonnies with a missed opportunity.
“It hurts, it’s a painful loss,” Chris Johnson said in a low, distraught tone. “Just knowing the importance of the game and seeing how hard our team fought to get back in it. We were just one possession away from taking it.”
Johnson is right.
This Bona team fought hard after a disappointing first half of play. La Salle made swiss cheese of the Bonnies’ No. 15 ranked 3-point defense, connecting on 7-of-14 in the first half. And those same Explorers boasted the league’s top-ranked 3-point defense, suffocating Bona into an 0-for-5 shooting first half from three.
Yet, Bona did not quit and instead followed the lead of their senior captain.
After attempting just one shot in the first half, Conger became more aggressive in the second on offense and defense. The senior grabbed four big defensive rebounds, helping limit La Salle to just five offensive boards in the second half.
Conger, knowing the 3-point shots would not fall, started to penetrate into the paint as he racked up five assists and scored nine of his 11 points in the second half. But Conger, ever the stat-sheet stuffer, also compiled two blocks and nabbed three steals, matching a season-high.
And the team followed suit, contesting La Salle’s 3-point shooters more and playing tighter defense, limiting the Explorers to just 28.6 percent shooting, including just 1-for-8 from beyond the arc.
“We dealt with some adversity, we overcame it and we had a shot,” Schmidt said of his team’s resilience. “The guys are never going to quit.”
Powerful words from Bona’s head man, but also the right ones.
This Bonnies squad has proven to have the heart of a defending champion, something that did not go unnoticed by La Salle’s Ramon Galloway who scored a game-high 23 points, showcasing why he should be the A-10 Player of the Year.
“St. Bonaventure beat Temple at home and they beat Saint Joseph’s at home,” he said after the game. “A lot of people don’t win at those places so we already knew what we were up against.”
But now it’s the Bonnies who know what they are up against.
An updated look at the Atlantic 10 has St. Bonaventure barely holding on to the No. 12 spot in the A-10 standings, but are just two games out of the eighth spot.
Bona enters the last phase of their schedule with uncertainty and must figure out how to turn their resilient mindset into wins or else the defending A-10 Champions may not make it to Brooklyn.
Ryan Lazo can be reached on Twitter @RMLazo13