Looks like the closest St. Bonaventure is going to get to the NCAA Tournament is via a television set. Blame Jameer Nelson.
Nelson, the 6-foot freshman point guard who has thrust St. Joseph's back into national prominence, sank Bona for the second time in 10 days Saturday as his two free free throws with 5.4 seconds left gave the first-place Hawks a 78-76 victory at the Reilly Center. The Atlantic 10 thriller was played before an Alumni Weekend sellout crowd of 6,000.
St. Joe's (19-4, 9-1 A-10) is likely to crack the Top 25 this week for the first time since 1997; Bona (14-8, 5-5) suffered its first home conference loss in five games.
The Bonnies failed to take advantage of their best remaining chance to get a quality win and impress the NCAA selection committee. Their only hope of a second straight bid appears to rest on winning next month's A-10 tourney in Philadelphia, something they've never done.
Things could have been different were it not for two gut-wrenching losses to St. Joe's. On Feb. 1, Nelson's 35-footer at the buzzer forced overtime and the Hawks went on to break the Bonnies' hearts, 104-97.
Then came Saturday. Bona had tied the game, 76-76, on a hook shot by center Peter Van Paassen with 19.7 seconds left. Nelson then dribbled upcourt and burst into daylight to the right of the key. Bona guard J.R. Bremer was called for a reach-in and Nelson made both free throws. Bremer's desperation 30-footer at the buzzer was an airball.
"He's not a freshman," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said of Nelson, the A-10 leader in assists (6.23). "People can have anybody they want, but he's the best freshman point guard in America. He plays a game that's just older. From his neck up, he's like 75 years old.
"Everything about his game is old-time, old-school, old man-like. When others around him may be losing their focus, this kid just keeps going. Nothing fazes him."
Nelson tuned out the berserk student sections and calmly sank his free throws to put St. Joe's ahead.
"You just have to go up there, shoot with confidence and do the best you can to block everything out," said Nelson, a suburban Philadelphia native who chose St. Joe's over Temple.
The call was tough for the Bonnies to take, given that it was a mild touch foul at the end of a trash-talking, push-and-shove affair.
"I didn't think they would call a little reach-in," Bremer said. "When you're on your homecourt, it's tough to decide a game on something like that. I could see if I blatantly knocked him over or something."
"When Peter (Van Paassen) hit his shot, I thought that barring a real hard foul the game would go into overtime," added Bona forward Kevin Houston. "The guy (Nelson) drives to the hole and there's a whole bunch of holds the whole game they weren't calling and then they call that."
The Bonnies battled hard, building a 21-12 lead and overcoming a 15-0 St. Joe's run in the first half that put them suddenly behind by eight (34-26). It was 38-31 for the visitors at halftime, but Van Paassen tallied seven of the points in a 10-1 Bona surge that put the Bonnies back ahead by five (54-49) and had the crowd in a tizzy.
"It was crazy out there," said St. Joe's forward Bill Phillips, who had 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting. "This is the type of game where you just want to get out of the gym with a win."
The lead changed hands eight times in the final nine minutes. Van Paassen converted a three-point play with 2:15 left for a 74-72 Bona lead, Bona's last. On Bona's next possession, Houston's shot was blocked by Alex Sazanov and St. Joe's guard Marvin O'Connor (22 points) broke free for a three-pointer from the left corner with 1:11 to go to put the Hawks on top, 75-74. Nelson added 1 of 2 from the line with 37 seconds left to put the Hawks up by two. Van Paassen's shot then tied the game and capped a 20-point second half for the 6-foot-11 senior, who missed the last two games with ankle tendinitis. Van Paassen finished with 22 points, hitting 7 of 11 from the field after an 0-for-6 first half.
"He showed a lot of courage tonight playing the way he did," said Bona coach Jim Baron. "He was a major force."
"I hadn't touched a basketball since the last St. Joe's game," said Van Paassen, who aggravated the injury early in that contest. "I guess that was very obvious in the first half."
Houston added 21 points for Bona, which hit 10 of 22 three-pointers but was just 26 of 62 overall. St. Joe's, meanwhile, finished 27 of 51 overall and 10 of 20 from long range.
"That's a slap in the face for us," Van Paassen said.
"We have to do a better job of defending," Baron said. "We gave them too many open looks. You just can't leave everything up to our offense. At some point, you've got to defend."