ALLEGANY – For more than a half-century and 665 games in all, St. Bonaventure has played in the jewel known as the Reilly Center and treated legions of fans to many a great moment. It would be nearly impossible to draw a definitive conclusion and identify one game as better than the others.
People of a certain age would argue it was the matchup in which Bob Lanier led St. Bonaventure to an 89-81 win over Calvin Murphy and Niagara, but it was played in January at a time when Bona was ranked third in the country and the Purple Eagles had failed to crack the Top 20.
Perhaps it was Bona's 98-93 win over Saint Joseph's in 2012, which was hailed as the greatest game ever played in the building. But it very well could be St. Bonaventure's 77-74 victory over No. 16 Rhode Island on Friday night when all the variables are added up. This much is certain:
It's up there. Way up there.
Friday's slugfest was a terrific performance by any measure before Bona fans stormed out of the bleachers and onto the court, as you knew they would after taking down an Atlantic 10 beast on a 16-game winning streak, knowing how desperately the Bonnies needed a quality win on its resume leading into the NCAA Tournament.
Bona fans 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 they needed at the end. So when it happened, after a Jared Terrell's desperation heave missed the rim and the final horn sounded, they joined in the celebration.
"I'm not sure there's been a better game since I've been here," said Bona coach Mark Schmidt, now in his 11th season.
Schmidt wasn't just talking about the result, although that should not be overlooked in the grand scheme, either. Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley felt the same way even though his team was on the wrong end of the score. Neither team led by more than six points in the entire game. There were 21 lead changes.
This one 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. Matt Mobley hit big shots and scored a game-high 26 points for Bona while Terrell carried Rhode Island, particularly in the first half, with 23.
"It was a sense of urgency," Schmidt said. "We knew it was a big game. We knew Rhode Island was on top and going to win the league. We knew a lot of things were riding on it. It was a good test, a barometer to find out where we were against the top dog. We couldn't have won without our crowd. It was a great victory for us."
It was a battle like none other in recent memory. There were big blocked shots inside, terrific passes, ferocious defense, battles in the lane, great perimeter shooting, monster dunks and more. LaDarien Griffin had a key blocked shot with three minutes remaining while wearing one shoe, for heaven's sake.
Jaylen Adams has put on shooting displays like nobody else in the Reilly Center, but the senior guard struggled Friday. He missed 10 of his first 11 shots and finished with 10 points and eight assists. He still made an impact, making a big bucket late and feeding Griffin for a dunk with 20 seconds remaining for a 75-74 lead.
And there was an element that could only be felt: drama. The game was sold out five days in advance, and every one of the 5,480 in attendance came prepared for a close game. I've covered Stanley Cups, the Olympics and numerous major sporting events, and the crowd in the Reilly Center may have been the loudest I've experienced.
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 foul after a student threw a miniature liquor bottle on the floor, a move he'll regret because he didn't see the finish.
They're just kids having fun, right? You would've been hard pressed to find a better atmosphere in college hoops Friday night.
"This is an amazing place to play," Hurley said. "There's so much tradition here. The fans are, um, they're intense. We're disappointed that we lost, but that was not lost on me. It was great for our league. I've been saying this Bonaventure team is an NCAA Tournament team. I would imagine the NCAA selection committee or people are watching understand it was two NCAA tournament teams playing a high-level game."
It was a monumental win for Bona, and an entertaining performance for sure, but there will be bigger games ahead if the Bonnies plan to reach the NCAA Tournament 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.
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 a 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 like a dark secret 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 for the 459th victory in the Reilly Center. It was one game worthy of the hype. Best game ever in the joint? Others can decide. But it was up there – way up there.
"To have the game sold out five days in advance, it was all people talked about wherever I was," Schmidt said. "It was a high-level game. You had two NCAA tournament-quality teams playing. It lived up to it, in my eyes. This was a game people will talk about for a long time."