Suddenly, almost without warning, there is hope at St. Bonaventure.
The Bonnies played Syracuse virtually even for 38 minutes Saturday night in the Carrier Dome before suffering their eighth straight loss. Wednesday night in the Reilly Center, they secured easily the most significant win in Anthony Solomon's four years as coach with a 74-69 upset of Saint Louis in the teams' Atlantic 10 opener.
The Bonnies (4-10) scored the first seven points, built a 36-26 halftime lead and never trailed. Saint Louis (10-4) entered the game 44th in the Ratings Percentage Index, the highest of any A-10 school. Bona was No. 328 out of 336.
"I'm really happy and joyous for our young people. . . . This was certainly a special game," Solomon said. "Saint Louis is a quality program and we want to break through in these type of settings against good programs."
The Billikens, picked third in the A-10 in the preseason coaches poll, own quality wins over Missouri State, Mississippi and Houston. Their previous losses -- to Texas A&M, Southern Illinois and North Carolina -- were against teams that were a combined 34-5.
But Bona was the better team as Saint Louis stayed alive only by hitting 10 of 19 three-pointers. The Bonnies were nearly as good, canning 8 of 18 from beyond the arc, and they controlled other areas.
Bona hit 11 of 19 shots in the second half, finished with a 31-25 rebounding edge and sank 18 of 21 free throws. A sparse crowd of 2,215 roared its approval as Bona did everything right down the stretch.
The rebounding was particularly significant because Saint Louis' front line features 6-foot-10, 270-pound senior Ian Vouyoukas, an all-conference player who put himself into the NBA draft last year before returning to school. Vouyoukas had 17 points but just six rebounds; he was averaging a conference-best 9.5.
Bona's rebounding has been brutal most of the season, but the Bonnies held Syracuse even Saturday and won the battle against the Billikens.
"When you put bodies on people and you get control of the backboards, you do allow yourself a chance," Solomon said.
Guard Zarryon Fereti led Bona with a career-high 26 points, 19 in the first half, after going scoreless at Syracuse. A more aggressive approach helped him hit 8 of 12 from the field and 5 of 7 three-pointers.
"His [shooting] stroke was really relaxed, as relaxed as I've seen him under the lights," Solomon said. "I've seen that a lot in practice."
Forward Michael Lee collected 19 points and nine rebounds and the Bonnies also got some late-game heroics from little-used senior Ivan Kovacevic, who collected all of his career-high four points and his lone rebound in the final minute.
Kovacevic, who played 11 minutes and entered for good with 2:06 left after Paul Williams fouled out, canned the putback of a Fereti miss with 38.4 seconds left to extend Bona's lead to 70-66 and clinched it by canning two free throws with 14.9 seconds to go.
The 6-10 Croatian had scored just three points in his two seasons here.
"I was focused for each possession and was just trying to play hard defense," Kovacevic said. "I was just waiting for my chance. I was pretty relaxed. I was mentally ready to play."
"We have confidence in everyone on our team," Fereti said. "That's what we need, for guys to come in and give us sparks."
Bona had a 41-31 lead with 17 1/2 minutes left before the Billikens finally got even for the first time with a 10-0 run. Sophomore Tommie Liddell (team-high 23 points) drilled a three-pointer from the right to make it 41-41 but the visitors never got ahead.
Saint Louis knotted the score three more times but the Bonnies, who host Richmond on Wednesday, answered every challenge with a basket of their own. They took over for good with a 7-0 run capped by a Fereti trey off a neat feed from Tyler Relph.