Since he took over the St. Bonaventure men's basketball program three years ago, Anthony Solomon has talked about the rebuilding process.
Finally, outsiders are beginning to see the structure taking shape.
The Bonnies gutted out a 66-58 win over Youngstown State in front of 4,712 at the Reilly Center Saturday night to improve to 5-2 overall and remain undefeated at home.
This time, they did it without much help from their star seniors.
Senior guard Ahmad Smith had just six points, playing just 21 minutes as he got into early foul trouble at the start of both halves. Meanwhile, senior forward Patrick Lottin struggled from the floor, hitting just one of his 14 shots.
Instead, Bona turned to its underclassmen -- sophomore forward Michael Lee, who poured in a career-high tying 21 points while freshman A.J. Hawkins had a career-high 19 points.
"I think it should give us a lot of confidence," Solomon said. "We'll continue to rely heavily on Ahmad Smith and Patrick Lottin. They're key components for us offensively but some nights, it won't be there. It shows how the program has grown. We have a lot of different options. We like to say that it's important that we attack as five. We just shared the ball."
While the Bonnies aren't exactly playing a national powerhouse non-conference schedule, wins -- any wins -- are most critical at this stage of the program's rehabilitation. The product on the court is better -- more exciting, competitive and crisper -- and that is translating into wins. And the key to the early season turnaround has been defense.
"Our defense again bailed us out," Solomon said. "But that was good for us because we as a program need to grow in really learning that some nights, offensively, things may not fall but if you consistently hang your hat on defensive principles, it will allow you to hang around basketball games."
In the first half, Bona distributed the ball well with Lee and Hawkins each netting nine points while Terron Diggs had six assists. Bona used a 5-0 run in the final 1:29 of the half to gain momentum, thanks in large part to an impressive dunk by Lee, who was fouled on the play and connected on his free throw. Lottin earned a steal with 19 seconds left and a jumper by Lee clanked off the back rim and fell through at the buzzer for a 30-24 halftime lead.
Youngstown State kept it a single-digit game most of the second half but the Bonnies were able to stem any momentum with key defensive plays.
It's the best start in the Reilly Center since the 2001-02 team won seven straight games at home. Massachusetts ended the Bonnies' streak that season with a win in the RC on Jan. 26, 2002.
The Bonnies need to take this winning feeling on the road. They play their next six games there, starting Saturday at Toledo. Bona does not return home until Jan. 11 when it hosts Atlantic 10 rival Temple.
"I just think we have to stay focused the way we have at home. . . . If we keep playing good defense that will keep us in the game, home or away," Lee said.
For Youngstown, it was their fifth straight loss. The Penguins (1-6) are searching for their first winning season since 2000-01.