It was gut-check time Saturday night in the Reilly Center. St. Bonaventure passed.
Grinding out a crucial win with dead-eye free-throw shooting and strong rebounding, the Bonnies held off Fordham, 84-74, before a sellout crowd of 6,000.
By snapping a two-game losing streak, the Bonnies improved to 16-10 overall and 7-7 in the Atlantic 10. They're tied for fifth in the conference with Dayton, a 70-62 loser Saturday at Temple, but have the tiebreaker edge by virtue of their win over the Flyers at the RC on Jan. 24. The fifth-place team gets the last first-round bye in the A-10 Tournament.
George Washington, the opponent in Wednesday's home finale, is a game behind Bona at 6-8. If the Bonnies win Wednesday and Dayton loses either of its final two games (Wednesday at Fordham or March 4 against Xavier), the Bonnies will clinch the fifth slot.
"I'm not as concerned with the positioning as I am with our health," said Bona coach Jim Baron. "You have to play the first night (in the tournament) or the second night, it really doesn't matter. Our guys showed a tremendous amount of heart and courage tonight. We really defended, rebounded and executed on the offensive end."
Bona held Fordham to 26 of 60 from the field, built a 44-34 rebounding advantage and hit 26 of 36 from the free-throw line -- including 16 straight over the final 7 1/2 minutes. The Bonnies were just 9 for 25 at the line in Wednesday's 77-60 loss at Xavier.
Senior forward Kevin Houston led Bona with 26 points and 14 rebounds, his fourth double-double of the season. Forward Vidal Massiah and guard J.R. Bremer chipped in 16 apiece. Senior center Peter Van Paassen remains badly hobbled by his season-long ankle injury, but managed to tally 13 points and five rebounds.
"What can you say about Peter Van Paassen?" Baron said. "The kid showed tremendous heart and character. . . . Wow, it's incredible."
The most wounded Bonnie at this point is freshman point guard Marques Green, who averages 27 minutes per game but has missed the last two contests with a charley horse.
The offense responded without Green and rebounding was the major factor. Bona had 21 offensive rebounds, its third-highest total of the season; Houston had a team-high six and Massiah hauled in five.
"Oh my God, they kicked our (butt), are you kidding me?" said Fordham coach Bob Hill. "That was just a rebounding clinic."
"Anytime you rebound the ball like that and give yourself second-chance shots like that, you have a pretty good chance to have a good outcome," Houston said.
Bona's inside dominance was a far cry from its 76-67 loss to Fordham Jan. 9 in the Bronx, its third straight to the Rams. That night, Rams freshman forward Jeff McMillan burned Bona with 22 points and 12 rebounds. The 6-8 McMillan has just five points and four boards Saturday.
The Bonnies' offense worked almost exclusively from outside in the early going, as their first 19 points all came on shots from at least 15 feet. Gradually, the ball started to get worked into the low post and Bona started pounding the glass.
"If we shoot outside in the first half, you know we're coming back inside because we've softened them up (on defense)," Houston said. "They're going to come out on the perimeter and that's what happened. They didn't want to leave the shooters and we started getting one-on-one matchups in the post."
Bona never trailed after the first three minutes. It had a 35-30 halftime lead and was comfortably in front, 62-49, with 10:23 left before Fordham (12-14, 4-10) went on a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to four. The Bonnies then used a 9-2 run of their own to go up by 11 (71-60) with 4:41 left.
Back came Fordham. Guard Bevon Robin (11 points) hit two three-pointers in a 57-second span to pull the Rams within three (73-70) with 1:59 left, but the visitors got no closer. Houston canned a conventional three-point play 30 seconds later off a Massiah feed to put Bona back in control and eight more free throws sealed the outcome.