ALLEGANY — Mark Schmidt was in a jovial mood following the game and for good reason Sunday. St. Bonaventure had recovered from an unsightly first half and cruised to a convincing win over George Washington, effectively restoring order in the Reilly Center after a shaky few weeks.
The Bonnies entered conference play with great expectations that were ratcheted up after a terrific start before cranking down after four straight road losses. Gone was any notion of them cracking the Top 25 or rolling through conference play or punching their ticket for the NCAA Tournament while barely breaking a sweat.
Bona wasn't going anywhere with the way they were playing defense, and Schmidt knew as much after seeing his team fall to Dayton, Saint Joseph's, Rhode Island and Davidson. They allowed more than 80 points in each of the road defeats, losing three times by 10 points or more with a home win over Fordham in between.
"Offense is fickle," Schmidt said. "If you shoot 30 percent in the first half offensively, you better play defense. Hopefully, we've learned. That's the constant. You win by playing defense. You're not going to score 85-90 points every night. We have to win by sitting down and grinding it out. We're not the prettiest team."
Schmidt talks about his team playing like junkyard dogs, but lately they were just junk – or maybe just dogs. It wasn't much better Sunday when they converted only 33 percent in the first half against a team sitting near the bottom of the Atlantic 10 conference. There were gruesome stretches that made you wonder how they beat anybody, let alone Maryland and Syracuse.
Buffalo sports fans are an entirely different sect than most in the way they hope for the worst and pray for best, but a subculture of basketball fans in the Southern Tier has an extra layer. On the downward spiral between preseason optimism and postseason reality is another emotion: panic.
And it was palpable 10 days ago when the ship suddenly stopped sailing, when conference losses started piling up and it became clear they had a hole in their underbelly. All along, while the opposition was bent on stopping senior guards Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley, the greater issue was Bona's failure to stop the opposition.
Finally, everything came together in a crisp, clean second half that carried them to a 70-52 victory over George Washington for Bona's second straight win. The Bonnies scored only 26 points in the first half, which would have sounded alarms had they not allowed only 21. Four times in the first half, GW failed to get off a shot.
"We knew it was going to be a difficult stretch, but at the same time we didn't play the defense we needed to play," Schmidt said. "Give those teams credit. They played well. We came back, we refocused, we worked on it. For the past two games (in home wins over St. Joe's and GW), it's been good. Now we go back on the road."
St. Bonaventure (14-6, 4-4) used a pair of 12-2 runs – one midway through the first half and the other to start to second – to gain control. Mobley scored a game-high 24 points, including 16 in the second half. Adams added 13 points and eight assists and Courtney Stockard had 12 points and a team-high seven rebounds.
All is well, for now, in large part because the Bonnies forced 17 turnovers, held the Colonials to 28 percent shooting and 32 percent for the game. It enabled them to score 17 points on the fast break and outscore GW, 38-22, in the paint. Bona had 14 assists in the second half in a classic example of defense leading to offense.
"We told them for the last three days that we wanted layups and dunks, not open shots," Schmidt said. "We could get that 18- or 19-foot jumper at the buzzer if we needed to. I thought our guys did a really good job. But we got a lot of stuff off of our defense, especially in the second half."
Every team the Bonnies play comes with variations of the same strategy that's designed to take away Mobley and Adams first while daring the other three players on the floor to make the difference. It’s much easier for teams to get into their set defense after making a basket on the other end.
George Washington (9-12, 2-6) hoped their triangle-and-two, with three men playing zone while the other two attempted to guard Mobley and Adams man-to-man, would slow down Bona's top two scorers. But the Colonials were scrambling to find them after Bona grabbed missed shots and raced to the open floor.
"Sometimes my job is just to run and draw the defense and open the gap for somebody else," Mobley said. "I just wanted to stay active, keep moving around and not make it easy on them by staying in one shot."
Idris Taqqee traveled coast to coast for an easy layup while George Washington chased Mobley and Adams on the perimeter. LaDarien Griffin did the same while giving the Bonnies a 54-34 lead with eight minutes remaining. The Bonnies had open shots after moving the ball quickly after GW attempted to play zone.
Schmidt inserted reserve guard Nelson Kaputo into the game, giving his team a smaller lineup with more speed, another ball-handler and an additional threat from the perimeter. The adjustment cranked up the tempo, leading to easy baskets in transition and freeing Mobley on the wing.
It all started with defense.
The next step is carrying the tenacity of a junkyard dog into their game Wednesday night at George Mason and into next Saturday at Duquesne. The Bonnies finish the season with five of seven games at the Reilly Center, where they're 9-1 this season.
"Defense has to be the constant," Schmidt said. "It should be there all the time. On the road, it's more difficult. We have to be more committed. We were more connected today. That's what we have to do when we go on the road."