OLEAN – Rhode Island executed its defensive plan to contain St. Bonaventure’s “Big Three” Wednesday night.
There was only one problem: The Bonnies showed up with a “Big Four.”
Junior forward Denzel Gregg scored a career-high 22 points – 16 in the second half – to lead the Bonnies to a 69-64 victory over the Rams.
The win was further indication St. Bonaventure is “for real” in the Atlantic 10 Conference, which is to say better than expected. Bona, picked for eighth place, improved to 12-3 overall and 4-0 in league. It was the Bonnies’ ninth win in the last 10 games.
Rhode Island, the least scored-upon team in the A-10, played stingy on the perimeter against Bona stars Marcus Posley, Dion Wright and Jay Adams. That trio was averaging a combined 52 points a game. The Rams held them to 39.
“One of our goals going into the game was to keep those three guys combined under 40,” said Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley. “If we did that we felt like we were going to win the game. To hold those guys … was really a great defensive performance. … We did exactly what we wanted to do for the most part.”
Enter the 6-foot-7 Gregg, a Syracuse product who Bona coach Mark Schmidt talked up all offseason as his potential “X-factor,” breakout player. Gregg is the kind of long-armed wing player Schmidt loves and arguably is the best athlete on the team. But his skills were raw when he showed up in Olean. He averaged just 3.7 points and 17 minutes last season.
It looks like the Schmidt skill-development program, which worked wonders with Wright, is transforming Gregg. This was his fourth straight game in double figures. He’s averaging 10 points and 5.3 rebounds a game.
“He’d been playing well coming in,” said Hurley. “They’re championship-caliber in our league right now with three high all-conference players, then a guy like Denzel Gregg that’s looking like a most improved player right now.”
Rhode Island stretched its defense out on Adams and Posley. Adams was held to 10 points by fine Rams guard Jarvis Garrett. Posley got 17, mostly the result of drives. Wright scored 12.
With the defense extended, Gregg used his athleticism to attack the rim and get fouled. He hit 10 of 11 free throws, and his drives helped foul out Rams 6-9 forward Kuran Iverson.
“I think, if anything, you have to attack rim-protectors harder than you do other guys,” Gregg said. “When you’re playing a shot blocker you’ve got to go in even stronger.”
Gregg’s biggest bucket was a three-pointer from the wing with 1:35 left in the game and 1 second left on the shot clock. It put the Bonnies up for good, 65-64. It wasn’t a pretty possession. Bona was dribbling around aimlessly on the other side of the court most of the 30 seconds.
“Jay kind of got trapped a little bit and he found me,” Gregg said. “I looked up at the shot clock and had to put it up.”
“They had nothing going in a dead possession,” lamented Hurley, “and the ball gets reversed to Gregg and he hits a deep three.”
Gregg’s not a great outside shooter. But he’s a lot better than last year. He’s 7 of 19 from three-point range on the season, and his field-goal percentage is up from .412 last year to .495.
“It’s a lot higher,” Gregg said of confidence in his jumper. “I worked a lot harder this summer.”
Rhode Island (10-7, 2-2) had the size edge. The Rams outscored the Bonnies in the paint, 34-22, and on second-chance points, 17-8. But the Bonnies held their own on the glass, getting outrebounded only 35-31.
The Rams got 17 points from star forward Hassan Martin and 16 from Garrett.
“We’ve got some top 50s,” Hurley said of his recruits, particularly Iverson. “I don’t know that Denzel was top 50 coming out of high school. … Our highly touted guys didn’t give us enough against their hard-working, self-made guys, like Denzel Gregg.”
“The intensity level was way up,” said Schmidt. “It wasn’t an X and O game. It was a mental and physical toughness battle.”