RICHMOND, Va. – The first thing St. Bonaventure coach Jim Crowley did after the game was apologize to people from home who made the trip. Many drove 7½ hours from Olean, nine hours from Buffalo, with the idea they would witness something special this weekend in Richmond Coliseum.
Fans came all that way, and for what?
An unsightly first half and an early exit.
The Bonnies’ chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years are all but cooked now. When the NCAA brackets are released on March 14, it will confirm the cold reality they faced Friday when walking off the court with a 59-50 loss to Virginia Commonwealth University in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
It crumbled in a ghastly first half, their worst two quarters this season. It crumbled under the pressure of VCU’s defense and depth. It crumbled when senior Katie Healy, their best player and spiritual leader, was forced to the bench with early foul trouble before she ended her A-10 career with seven points.
“It was a disappointing first half for us, obviously,” Crowley said after apologizing. “I thought we fought really hard in the second half. But we appreciate (the fans) coming. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Crowley doesn’t need to apologize, of course. He guided his team to a 23-7 record this season. The Bonnies finished fourth in the A-10 after a fast start. They ended up losing four of eight games to conference teams down the stretch, including their first game in the conference tourney.
Bona didn’t need to win the tourney to reach the Big Dance. They had a strong enough record and had beaten enough good teams to make a very good case for an at-large bid, assuming they didn’t fall down Friday. After the early knockout, they’re likely headed for the consolation National Invitation Tournament.
“We’re just looking forward,” Healy said. “It was a tough loss, but there’s nothing we can do about it now. We still have a little bit of a season to go. We’re pretty sure of that. We’ll come back and fix it, hopefully make a run in the postseason.”
The Bonnies whittled a 14-point halftime deficit to three but didn’t have the energy to finish the job. Bona was held scoreless for more than four minutes before Emily Michael made a three-pointer with 59 seconds remaining. VCU still had a 55-46 lead that was too much to overcome in the final minute.
Miranda Drummond, who missed the five-point loss to VCU earlier in the season, had a game-high 13 points. Mariah Ruff had a tough afternoon from the floor, making just 3 of 22 shots and going 2 for 11 from three-point range. St. Bonaventure made just 5 of 29 attempts from three-point range.
VCU entered the game having already ramped up the intensity that comes with playing in the conference tournament. The Rams had a tune-up against crosstown rival Richmond and breezed to a 20-point win. While the game Friday was played at a neutral site, it was played 1½ miles from their home court at the Siegel Center.
The Rams had ready legs and were free of jitters when they took the floor against the Bonnies, and it showed. Virtually anything that could go wrong did go wrong for Bona in the opening half. They allowed an 11-0 run to end the first quarter. Healy was on the bench with two fouls three minutes into the second quarter.
“The toughest game in any tournament is the first one,” VCU coach Beth O’Boyle said. “We had the win under our belt. It got us a little energy. Our defense has been like that all year. It’s our calling card. We really take pride in it.”
For the second time this season, and clearly not a coincidence, the Bonnies had problems finding the basket in Richmond.
St. Bonaventure, winless in five games against VCU, missed 19 of its first 24 shots to start the game. Some were contested. Some were open. Some were gimmes. Not enough were made.
Somehow, they trailed by only nine going into the final 10 seconds of the first half. In the final nine seconds, however, VCU guard Isis Thorpe made a bucket, stole the inbounds pass, bumped into a teammate and made a three-pointer at the buzzer for a 29-15 lead. The Bonnies had 14 turnovers in the first half, five in the second.
“You’re helpless,” Crowley said. “You get frustrated, and you try to put that frustration away so you can try and get something going. In the second quarter, we really got our defense going. We got some shots on the rim, and they didn’t fall. And then we had that meltdown right before the half.”
As you might expect, the stats were gruesome in the first half. The Bonnies shot 23 percent from the floor. They were 2 for 11 from three-point range, a step back from their 2-for-11 performance in their previous meeting. The one three-pointer they made came after Nyla Rueter inadvertently banked a shot from the right wing.
It wasn’t as if VCU was lighting up the Coliseum, either. The Rams shot 38.6 percent from the floor in the game and were 13 of 24 from the foul line. They forced 19 turnovers but committed the same number. They managed to get enough easy buckets inside, especially with Healy on the bench, and controlled the backboard.
The Rams made life miserable for the Bonnies before sending them, and their fans, on an early trip home.