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Underdogs? Bonnies just didn’t buy it

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Jim Crowley spared his players the speech about being the underdog Friday night. St. Bonaventure playing Oklahoma State wasn’t Middle Tennessee State beating Michigan State. He didn’t measure the baskets to prove his team belonged on the same floor.

The Bonnies didn’t need a near-perfect performance or reminders about little engines that could to beat the Cowgirls on Friday night. Bona was a 10th seed that needed to make a few shots early in the game, adhere to their simple style and play sound defense to knock off seventh-seeded Oklahoma State.

Bona executed the game plan in a 65-54 victory over Oklahoma State, marking the second time since 2012 in which they advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was a terrific win for the program and the Big 4, but it wasn’t as if a monumental upset unfolded in Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum.

“We’re a unique place, and that’s what makes us special,” Crowley said. “We don’t have a band. We don’t have the Nike or Adidas tournament shirts. I don’t say that in a bad way. That’s OK. We don’t have a lot of students. We don’t have football. But we have kids who are really tough. We have kids with a ton of heart.”

And that’s essentially what Crowley told his players before the game. He tapped into the passion that runs deep through the Southern Tier. He reminded them that their university is the third-smallest in Division I and could practically hear the fans back home cheering from their coaches as if they were in the Reilly Center.

But underdog? No.

Crowley wanted his players to embrace the idea that they were a darned good team that didn’t need all the bells and whistles. Now they’re headed for the second round. The Bonnies (24-7) will play No. 2 seed Oregon State (29-4) at 9 p.m. Sunday. Oregon State, the host team, buried Troy, 73-31.

“We don’t want to let each other down,” he said. “And we’re pretty darned good.”

Oklahoma State found out just how good Bona was in the Big Dance. The Bonnies rattled off 16 straight victories this season. It wasn’t an accident. Oklahoma State might be a bigger program from a better league. They have better facilities and the Big 12 Player of the Year in Brittney Martin.

The Bonnies have Katie Healy, who is widely respected within the Atlantic 10 Conference but largely unknown elsewhere. The Lancaster native was terrific Friday night, particularly early. She asserted herself midway through the first quarter and scored 10 points, giving her teammates the jolt of confidence they needed.

Healy finished with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting. She helped shut down 6-5 center Kaylee Jensen, the Cowgirls’ second-leading scorer. Jensen was held scoreless until 5:16 remained in the game with the Bonnies holding an eight-point lead. She didn’t make a field goal and finished with three points.

St. Bonaventure exposed Oklahoma State as a one-woman show while putting on a clinic on how a team playing together can beat a bigger, supposedly superior team. The Cowgirls are a good team, but they couldn’t keep up with the Bonnies’ speed, athleticism and precision on both ends of the floor.

The Bonnies stood up to Martin, who had 23 points and 13 rebounds in defeat, and they stood up to the pressure of the moment.

“Everybody in our team came prepared to make big shots,” Healy said. “We came through.”

Nyla Rueter banged back-to-back threes after Oklahoma State closed to within 37-34 in the third quarter. Healy came up big in the fourth quarter, converting a three-point play and making two free throws for a 10-point lead. Emily Michael made a three with 3:11 remaining after Oklahoma State drew within six.

“They answered the call every time,” Cowgirls coach Jim Littell said. “They hit big shot after big shot. It wasn’t what we envisioned going into the game.”

It wasn’t what many envisioned. Crowley was determined to stick to what led them across the country. If the Bonnies were going down, they were going down their way. He didn’t have a backup plan. If it wasn’t good enough, oh well.

The Bonnies play a five-out motion offense mostly out of necessity. It suits a recruiting strategy based on simple math. There are far more players who can handle the ball and shoot from the perimeter than 6-foot-5 forwards and centers who are desperate to play for a small school along the Southern Tier.

In essence, Crowley works to his strengths while asking his players for the same. His offense requires a good floor general, a versatile post player and a collection of unselfish guards who can cut to the basket and are lethal when left open. It’s a basic offense with a touch of Princeton and very effective when run properly.

At its best, which was the case Friday, it looks like controlled chaos. Bona’s offense gave Oklahoma State fits. Oklahoma State doesn’t play teams with the same style and looked flustered while chasing Bona’s guards all over the floor. Bona took off on a 14-1 run to close the first quarter and had a 33-28 lead at intermission.

And they never looked back.

“It’s the beauty of playing teams you don’t know,” Martin said. “It’s like a pickup game. It definitely threw us off.”

The Bonnies played a different game within the game. Smaller players like those assembled on Bona’s roster don’t always shoot straight. But when they’re hitting shots, they’re capable of winning a few games in the NCAA Tournament.

On Friday, it wasn’t just a different game. It was a better game. The school without the band worked in symphony and danced into the second round.


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