ALLEGANY – Under normal circumstances, considering the way things have gone in recent years, St. Bonaventure would expect to beat Niagara four out of five times, maybe more, in the Reilly Center. Bona has the more established coach, are deeper and more talented and play in a stronger conference.
The challenge for the Bonnies in their season opener Friday night was beating the Purple Eagles with their right arm – known as senior point guard Jaylen Adams – tied behind their back. Adams missed the game after suffering a sprained ankle in a scrimmage against Alfred.
St. Bonaventure had beaten Niagara in six straight meetings before the Purple Eagles started out strong and withstood a second-half challenge in a 77-75 victory in front of a packed house. Fifth-year senior Khalil Dukes scored 23 points and made six of eight three-point attempts to lead the Purple Eagles. Matt Scott added 18 points for Niagara.
Niagara took off on a 12-4 run to take a 70-63 lead, and Bona never recovered. Niagara's win came with a small asterisk given Adams' absence, but it was another sign that better days could be ahead for the Purple Eagles. Niagara fans should rejoice while Bona fans should relax. It was a solid win for the Purple Eagles but hardly a devastating loss for the Bonnies.
As anyone who has followed the program during Adams' career would attest, he's more than the Bonnies' top returning scorer. He's their best player and leader, the heart and soul of their team, the preseason pick for Player of the Year in the Atlantic 10 conference and widely considered a top 20 point guard in the country.
"Losing (Adams) is going to hurt them," Niagara coach Chris Casey said. "I'm not going to sit up here and (lie). They're not the same team without him. But I also think they're not a one-man show. They're well-coached and they;'ve got some great players. To come into this environment, whether they have him or not, is a tough, tough game."
The objective for Bona's opponents this season will be taking away Adams. He and Matt Mobley make up one of the top backcourts in the country going into this season. They averaged 39.1 points per game last season and figure to come back stronger this year.
Take away Adams, and Bona still has a guard who averaged 18.5 points per game last year. Mobley finished with 29 points, including two threes in the final 14 seconds.
Adams' availability supposedly was a game-time decision, but it made little sense for him to play. The Bonnies didn't need him Friday night against Niagara. They need to make sure he's healthy for better opponents next month and going at full speed when conference play begins in January.
Junior Courtney Stockard, who sat out the previous two years with foot injuries, played quality minutes and made a big three-pointer that gave St. Bonaventure a 59-58 lead with six minutes left after trailing for most of the game. LaDarien Griffin, an athletic 6-6 junior, had 10 points for the Bonnies.
The game Friday offered a glimpse into what could have happened if Adams opted to leave school after his junior year. He worked out in a few NBA camps during the offseason but did not hire an agent or declare for the draft, allowing him to maintain his eligibility for his final season.
Adams can hurt teams in so many ways. He's a terrific shooter from the outside, but he doesn't need to score to make an impact. He's a great free-throw shooter who has closed out many a game in his first three years. And he draws so much attention that he opens the floor for everybody else.
Junior Nelson Kaputo ran the offense the best he could Friday, but there's a major difference between him getting more minutes and Adams playing almost the entire game.
"(Adams) is our best player, but we're not making any excuses," Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. "They beat us with the guys we had out there. All the credit goes to them. … It's the best team (Casey) has had since he's been there. They have some good pieces. It's not like we lost to a bad team. But at the same time, when you play at home, you expect to win."
Niagara was coming from a much different place Friday. Casey averaged eight wins over his previous four seasons while trying to rebuild his program with new parts, thanks mostly to an abundance of players who left the program for one reason or another.
Finally, he entered the season with a good team intact. Watch out for Niagara, which could be a surprise team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Scott barely left the bench his freshman year but honored his commitment to the program. Now, he's a polished player who can finish. He's expected to be one of the top players in the conference. Dukes can run the offense and shoot from the outside. The growing pains could be coming to an end.
"I told our guys, 'Don't flinch. No matter what's coming at you, don't flinch. Stay solid.'" Casey said. "We've been in that situation before, and we flinched too many times. One night doe not a season makes, but it's certainly a good start to the season for us."
The game was part of a Big 4 doubleheader with the men's and women's teams from both schools playing Friday night. St. Bonaventure's women won, 76-58, after dominating in the second half. The Bonnies came back from a 17-point deficit in the second quarter and outscored the Purple Eagles, 34-8, in the third quarter.
Bona struggled from the field in the first half before making 12 of 14 shots in the third quarter, outscoring Niagara by 35 points over the final 24-13. Sophomore Danielle Migliore scored a career-high 21 points, including five three-pointers. Mariah Ruff had 14 assists, the second-most in program history.
In the nightcap, the Bonnies came out slow while trying to work out the kinks and get their feet under them. They missed 16 of their first 20 shots from the field while Niagara had a 24-14 lead in the first 14 minutes of the game. The Purple Eagles had a 34-25 lead at halftime.
Niagara was playing its third game and appeared more composed early in the game while building a lead. Dukes had eight points in the first seven minutes. The Purple Eagles took away passing lanes and forced the Bonnies to shoot from the perimeter. Bona shot 26.1 percent in the first half and missed all six three-point attempts.
The Bonnies scored six straight points to open the second half and crawled back into striking distance before Stockard buried a three from the top of the key to give them the one-point lead. Niagara scored 12 of the next 16 points to pull ahead. Bona had a chance to tie the game in the final 10 seconds but Mobley threw the ball away.
"I thought we fought," Schmidt said. "We had a chance. We had the last possession to tie the game. The positive to come out of the game was that we didn't quit. We kept fighting. We didn't look good, but we didn't give up."