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Bonnies are better but not good enough

Progress is measured in small doses these days at St. Bonaventure.

The Bonnies fell to 7-17 with Sunday's 72-64 loss to Massachusetts before 3,823 in the Reilly Center. They've dropped 13 of their last 14 overall and are 1-12 in the Atlantic 10. With three games left, Bona is a shoo-in to miss the conference tournament next month in Cincinnati (only 12 of the 14 teams qualify).

But don't think coach Anthony Solomon is going to get down when pondering those numbers. Just 16-64 overall and 5-40 in conference play in three seasons, Solomon has maintained unwavering confidence in his quest to revive a program suffering the effects of its 2003 recruiting scandal. Solomon still has three years left on his contract and St. Bonaventure finally gets off probation in July.

"Our overall talent base has improved," Solomon said after the latest defeat. "We have some young men that went home over the summer and improved their games. We're continuing to take it step by step. Is the progress we want to make as quick as anybody would like? Certainly not. But there is progress being made and we're going to continue to represent this university in a way that shows we're of high character."

The Bonnies went 6-4 in non-conference games after going 1-11 last year. And even though they're headed for their second straight one-win season in league play, their overall numbers are better in several areas.

Bona's scoring average is up (61.4 to 67.5) and its defensive yield is down (77.4 to 72.9). Last year, the Bonnies had 87 more turnovers than assists. This year, they're even (323-323).

The area they've made the biggest improvement in is rebounding but that was their Achilles heel Sunday. Bona was outboarded by 4.6 per game last year but was plus-1.5 this season coming into this game. Not anymore.

UMass pillaged Bona on the glass, 54-33, and grabbed 21 offensive boards. Rashaun Freeman, a 6-foot-9 junior, had 25 points and a career-high 19 rebounds while 6-8 junior Stephane Lasme had 11 points and a career-high 15 boards. Freeman was two boards shy of the RC opponent record of 21 set by Syracuse's Rudy Hackett in 1975.

"They overpowered us," Solomon admitted.

"They're big guys, especially Freeman," said Bona forward Michael Lee, who gave up only one inch to Freeman but is 70 pounds lighter than UMass' 255-pounder. "We were trying to do the best we could boxing them out but unfortunately they got a couple of long rebounds . . . and it really hurt us in the long run."

What also hurt was an ill-timed technical by Bona guard Isiah Carson. The Bonnies had opened the second half with a 10-2 run to take a 42-39 lead when Carson was called for an iffy blocking foul with 16:17 left. Knocked on his back, the sophomore barked at officials and slapped at the floor to draw the "T". UMass (11-12, 6-6) hit three free throws on that possession to tie the game and took the lead for good a couple minutes later with a 10-2 run that featured three Freeman putbacks.

"We don't approve of technicals but there were a lot of swings in the game," Solomon said. "That was one of many. Even after that happened, we had our share of opportunities."

Senior guard Ahmad Smith had another solid game for Bona with 21 points while Lee had 20. Smith pushed his career total to 1,215 points and moved into 23rd place on the school's all-time list. With the A-10 tournament apparently gone, he has just three more games left in his career.

"There's always something to play for and it's not over yet anyway," Smith insisted. "We just know about Bonaventure pride and playing hard for coach Solomon."

Solomon briefly choked back his words pondering the end of Smith's career. Smith -- one of two players left from the scandal days -- has just one home game left, March 1 against George Washington.

"I'm just disappointed for Ahmad Smith," Solomon said. "He's stayed here through a lot. The energy he puts out and the leadership I ask for from him, even through these times, means a lot to me."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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