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Bucky Gleason: St. Bonaventure will remember great ride into NCAA Tournament

DALLAS – In St. Bonaventure's quiet locker room 20 minutes after the game, amid sniffles and tears and regret that come with defeat, the anguish was still too fresh for a collection of young men to put an entire season into perspective. They were too immersed in finality to comprehend totality.

Life experiences teach us to place less emphasis on the present and gain greater appreciation for the past and future. Seeing the big picture comes with marriage and children, careers and funerals. No matter how much time and energy poured into basketball, they eventually will understand it really was a game.

Someday, this irrepressible collection of players will look back on the 2017-18 season knowing they earned their place with the best teams ever assembled at the small, private university along the Southern Tier. And certainly, despite losing in the NCAA Tournament, that counted for something.

"It's hard to look at it right now," Jaylen Adams said. "Historic season. I couldn't be prouder of my teammates for the way we fought all year, from losing that first game to that 2-4 start in the conference, the way we battled back and fought to get here. It's a tough way to go out, but I'm proud of my guys."

The Bonnies finished with a 26-8 record overall this season, the most victories in the history of the program. They earned an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000. They won a game in the Big Dance for the first time since 1970, back when it was a sock hop, and did their part to settle an old score with UCLA.

Florida had an easy time with an exhausted and inferior St. Bonaventure team in a 77-62 victory that ended half-past midnight Friday in Buffalo. The Gators were better and would have beaten St. Bonaventure in nine out of 10. The Bonnies hoped to give them a respectable fight before losing their legs.

"Maybe in a couple days it will sink in how great we played this year," Matt Mobley said. "It's just sad that it had to end like this. I mean, we had a great year, and there's no one I'd rather do it with than these guys. I'm just thankful."

To wallow in one defeat to a superior Florida team for more than a few hours, however, would be trivializing their season as a whole. It has been many years, nearly a half-century perhaps, since St. Bonaventure packed so many great games and so many memorable individual performances into a single season.

The Bonnies suffered one loss at home all year, to Niagara in the opener, in a game they likely would have won easily if Adams wasn't sidelined with a sprained ankle. They beat Maryland without their star. They beat Syracuse in overtime for their first victory ever in the Carrier Dome.

Mobley and Adams combined for 60 points in 40 minutes while clobbering UMass when it seemed neither could miss. Adams became the third player in Bona history with consecutive 40-point games, torching Duquesne for 40 and Saint Louis for 44. Mobley had three 30-point games, often zigging when Adams zagged.

Bona had a terrific role player in Idris Taqqee – "He's the glue," coach Mark Schmidt said – and a vastly improved player in LaDarien Griffin and a project in Amadi Ikpeze. They understood their place on the team along with many others, contributing to their success.

The win over 16th-ranked Rhode Island was one of the most exciting games in years, only to be trumped 11 days later by a 117-113 win over Davidson in triple overtime. Adams, Mobley and Courtney Stockard each scored more than 30 points in that game, which began with Stockard scoring the first 17 for the Bonnies.

If the win over Davidson didn't clinch Bona's first visit to the NCAA Tournament since 2012, the victory over Richmond in the A-10 Tournament did. The First Four win over UCLA was significant in the sense that it ended a 48-year drought in the Big Dance and gave them a place on college basketball's national landscape.

But, really, it was hardly an upset.

"For us to win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 48 years is just unbelievable," coach Mark Schmidt said. "The wins are great, but we've got the respect of the country now. It's taken us a while to get that."

Fifteen wins this season were by single digits. They were 20-0 when leading going into the final five minutes of regulation. They won 13 straight games against conference opponents, another program record. The ascended to 21st on the Ratings Percentage Index and were ranked 26th at the close of the regular season.

St. Bonaventure was still perceived as the cute little school that was located off the beaten path in Podunk, N.Y., known to outsiders only if they made a pit stop on Interstate 86 on their way to somewhere else. It's on the outskirts of the outskirts of a big city, assuming Buffalo passes for a big city.

The Bonnies were forced to play a First Four game as a No. 11 seed, which felt like an insult from the NCAA. St. Bonaventure was listed as the 16th seed on a banner in Dayton. ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt mispronounced Olean the other night as O-LEEN. Schmidt's name was listed "Mark Smith" on quote sheets in Dallas.

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked, "Where is St. Bonaventure again?" – between Washington, Dayton and Dallas – I'd be sitting on my beachfront property drinking beer and chucking my cell phone into the ocean. But with the university's anonymity is an element of allure when it succeeds.

Basketball fans who forgot the program existed in recent years have come to appreciate its resourcefulness and resiliency. People love seeing the smallest kid punch out the bully.

See: St. Bonaventure 65, UCLA 58.

It wasn't a fluke.

St. Bonaventure was a dangerous team because it has little to lose other than a basketball game Thursday. They proved a point against UCLA and wanted more, but there was no shame in losing to a university with a $111 million athletics budget – or about $100 million more than Bona spent last year.

"It was such an emotional roller-coaster," Mobley said barely above a whisper. "We went from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows. It was a pretty good season. Yeah, it was a great year."

It was a fun year, too, with the right collection of players and the right coach who came together at just the right time. Someday, they'll treasure the experience and realize they were just a bunch of kids having fun.

What's a team to do when the roller-coaster comes to a halt? Get back in line and ride it again.

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