ALLEGANY – Let's return to late December in the days after St. Bonaventure beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome for the first time in history. Coach Mark Schmidt was on edge leading into the Atlantic 10 opener, worried his players would fall victim to a letdown in a home game against Massachusetts.
The Bonnies coasted to an easy win over the Minutemen that put their coach at ease, temporarily, anyway. They had an 11-2 record overall and were riding an eight-game winning streak. It was a sign something special was happening, that Bona embraced soaring expectations and was equipped to take on all comers.
Right when it appeared St. Bonaventure could do no wrong, they started doing very little right. The Bonnies started taking bad shots and turning over the ball and stopped playing defense while losing four of five games. It was easy to conclude they had committed the most egregious of sins: They bought into the hype.
The fact they righted themselves with a seven-game winning streak, although impressive, was hardly grounds for celebration. Four wins came at home, and the other three were against teams – George Mason, Duquesne, La Salle – that Bona expected to beat before the season began.
So the true test for St. Bonaventure came against Rhode Island, which had won 16 straight games and was ranked 16th in the country, Friday night in the steamy Reilly Center. Add a national television audience on ESPN2 and a sellout four days in advance, and it was Bona's most anticipated contest in years.
Well, the Bonnies are back in business after standing up to Rhode Island and the pressure of their biggest game in years in a 77-74 victory over the Rams. Matt Mobley grabbed a key rebound with four seconds left and made three critical free throws in the final 14 seconds to give Bona the win.
It was an incredible game by any measure before Bona fans stormed the court, as you knew they would. They had been behind them all evening, staying with them when things appeared bleak, willing them back into the game with a late surge and giving them energy when they needed it most.
Mobley finished with a game-high 26 points. Jared Terrell finished with 23 points, but it was a miss inside with four seconds left that clinched the win for Bona.
This game had everything. Both teams traded punches while refusing the other to pull away. Rhode Island had a four-point lead in the first half that Courtney Stockard answered with a three. Mobley hit big shots for Bona while Terrell carried Rhode Island, particularly in the first half.
It was a slugfest like none other in recent memory in the first half. There were big blocked shots inside, terrific passes, ferocious defense, battles in the lane, great perimeter shooting, impressive dunks and more. LaDarien Griffin had a key blocked shot with three minutes remaining while wearing one shoe, for heaven's sake.
And then there was the crowd, which came prepared for a close game and did not disappoint the Bonnies. I've covered Stanley Cups, the Olympics and numerous major sporting events. The crowd in the Reilly Center, given its confines, may have been the loudest of any venue I've visited.
Let's just say that the student section deserves hard time with the Franciscans in the chapel given the language they used – on a Friday night during Lent, no less. The Bonnies were assessed a technical after a student threw a miniature liquor bottle on the floor, a move he'll regret because he didn't see the finish.
Ah, what the heck. They're just kids having fun, right? You would've been hard pressed to find a better atmosphere in college hoops Friday night.
It was a monumental matchup, for sure, but there will be bigger games ahead if the Bonnies plan to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, when they received an automatic berth after winning the A-10 tourney. Rhode Island is virtually certain to be in their way again in the next month.
Rhody deserves all the credit it has been given during its remarkable run. Teams don't win 16 straight by accident. The Rams are balanced and experienced. Terrell is a terrific player who put on a show Friday night. But it's not as if they're unbeatable. The Bonnies are plenty capable of taking them down.
Jaylen Adams has put on shooting displays like none other at the Reilly Center, but the senior guard struggled from the outside Friday. He missed 10 of his first 11 shots and finished with 10 points and eight assists. He had averaged 33.5 points over his previous four games.
St. Bonaventure has won eight straight conference games, the longest streak since it joined the Atlantic 10 in 1982-83. The Bonnies also earned their 20th win for a third straight season, which hasn't happened since Tom and Sam Stith led the program in the late 1950s and early '60s.
For the Bonnies, the game Friday was critical on many fronts. It gave them their first victory this season over a team ranked in the Top 25. It ensured they remained in second place in the conference with Davidson, which plays Saturday at home against 12th-place UMass.
Keep in mind, St. Bonaventure has difficult closing stretch to the schedule with Duquesne, at Virginia Commonwealth, Davidson and at Saint Louis. Winning all four would guarantee a double-bye in the conference tournament, granted to the top four teams, next month in Washington.
The Bonnies' hiccup in early January, when they lost four straight on the road with a home win over Fordham in between, has followed them around all season. Schmidt needed to restore confidence in his players, and his team needed to re-establish itself after starting league play looking like the team to beat.
And that's how they played Friday when beating the top team in the conference.