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Cold start finishes St. Bonaventure in NIT loss

ALLEGANY – Sometimes, moving on is easier said than done.

The St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team wanted to believe its NCAA Tournament snub would not linger into Wednesday night’s NIT game against Wagner.

The truth, however, is that the Bonnies were still feeling sorry for themselves. They weren’t ready to play – physically or emotionally – and dug themselves a hole they couldn’t quite dig out of in a 79-75 loss to Wagner, the Northeast Conference regular-season champion which came into the Reilly Center without anything to lose.

Bona earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NIT after sharing the Atlantic-10 regular-season title, before losing in the conference tournament quarterfinals to Davidson.

“I just talked to my guys about not being afraid,” Wagner coach Bashir Mason said. “We’re not supposed to win this game anyway, so we don’t want to lose it by being timid. Just go out there and play. Whatever happens, happens.”

With that freedom, the Seahawks showed right away that they wouldn’t be intimidated, which can easily happen to opponents inside the Reilly Center. A frenzied crowd of 4,793 left children covering their ears from the noise at times.

“This is more than what I expected – it was unbelievable,” Mason said. “I was scared out of my mind coming here watching those guys on film.“

That fear didn’t show up on the court. The Seahawks won a postseason game, NIT or NCAA, for the first time ever largely because of the way they started it.

An 11-0 run punctuated by a traditional three-point play by Romone Saunders gave Wagner a 26-10 lead a little more than 12 minutes into the game.

So much for putting the disappointment of being left out of the Big Dance behind them.

“We didn’t come out well at all,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. “Give Wagner credit. They came at us. They knocked us on our heels. … We didn’t have any energy.”

A three-pointer by Saunders gave the Seahawks a 36-19 lead with 4:05 left in the first half as the Bonnies struggled to get anything going from the field. Bona shot 9 of 30 (30 percent) in the first half, including a dreadful 2 of 15 (13 percent) from three-point range. The Bonnies’ “Big Three” of seniors Dion Wright and Marcus Posley, as well as sophomore Jaylen Adams, combined to go 7 of 25 from the field, and 2 of 13 from three-point range.

“Shots weren’t falling for anybody,” Adams said.

“Seeing some of the guys’ faces, you could tell it affected them a lot,” Posley said of missing out on the NCAA Tournament. “We just tried to preach on it all week while we were at practice – not to worry about it. … Try to drop it, not talk about it and just focus on the next game. We didn’t come out and play the way we’re capable of playing.

“We fought in the second, but we waited too late.”

It had been exactly 21 years to the day since the last postseason home game at the Reilly Center – an NIT victory over Southern Mississippi on March 16, 1995. The long wait left the Bona faithful hungry, and they ate well Wednesday. Their presence after halftime almost felt like an extra body on the floor in a white uniform.

They simply weren’t going to let their team exit the postseason with a whimper. With those fans dragging them along, the Bonnies did fight back in the second half.

After a layup by Wagner’s Mike Aaman gave the Seahawks a 60-44 lead, the Bonnies went to work chipping away at the deficit.

They cut Wagner’s lead all the way to 69-67 on a three-pointer by Adams with 3 minutes left. During an ensuing media timeout, Bob Lanier Court was shaking from the noise.

“The Reilly Center - that’s how it is. It’s a special place,” Schmidt said. “I thought we let them down, especially in the first half, with our effort. … Basketball is really important in the community. They come out and support us night in and night out. We really appreciate what they do for us. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have come back.”

After the media timeout, Saunders got to the free-throw line on a questionable foul against Bona’s Idris Taqqee. He converted both for a 71-67 lead with 2:25 left, but Bona got within a basket again on a short jumper from Denzell Gregg with 2:12 left.

Again, though, Saunders rose to the occasion. The sophomore guard hit a clutch three-pointer from the left wing for the last of his team-high 21 points and a 74-69 lead with 1:45 left.

An offensive foul on Wright and a turnover by Gregg ended the Bonnies’ next two possessions, but Wagner was unable to extend their lead. Both Adams and Posley then missed three-pointers with less than 25 seconds to play.

It’s easy to wonder how much fatigue played a factor, as Adams and Wright played all 40 minutes, while Posley logged 39 while clearly limping.

“Pretty hurt,” is how Posley described his condition. “Coach knew I was going to play as hard as I could. Things happen for a reason. I didn’t have enough time to recover. I was good enough to play for the game, but just didn’t play the way I’m capable of playing.”

A pair of free throws by Wagner’s JoJo Cooper put the Seahawks up 76-69 with 12 seconds left. Both Wright and Posley hit three-pointers to cut the Wagner lead to 77-75, but by that point only 1 second was left on the clock. After the Seahawks (23-10) got the ball to Michael Carey, he hit two free throws to seal the win.

So Bona’s first trip to the NIT since 2002 ends up being much shorter than it hoped.

“We had a great season,” Schmidt said. “As I said on Sunday, getting snubbed by the NCAA didn’t define our season and this certainly doesn’t define our season. … It’s disappointing how it ended, but that’s basketball.”

Bona finished the year 22-9 – the fourth-most wins in a single season in its history – and graduates just two seniors, but as part of the Big Three, replacing Posley and Wright will be a challenge for Schmidt.

“I’m proud of what Marcus and Dion have done throughout their careers,” Schmidt said. “We wouldn’t be here celebrating such a great season without the efforts of those two guys, along with Jay. We had a special season, proud of what we accomplished, disappointed in tonight, but overall it’s a season that we’ll all remember.”

Adams finished with a game-high 24 points, while Posley had 18, but shot just 5 of 17 from the floor. Wright had 12 points and 11 rebounds for his 14th double-double of the season.

Wright ended his career with 1,263 points (25th on the all-time list) and 683 rebounds (15th), while Posley scored 1,122 points in just two seasons, good for 30th.

After the game, he saluted the crowd from center court.

“That was going through my head the whole time,” he said of playing what ended up as his final game at the Reilly Center. “All the support we had all year was just tremendous. It’s one of those things you’ll never forget.”