If you want to know what makes the St. Bonaventure women's basketball team special, take a look at its ugly win over Saint Joseph's last week.
The Hawks came into the Reilly Center giving their best possible effort and jumped out to a seven-point lead with about seven minutes left in the game.
But Jim Crowley didn't call timeout. He let his team play on. On their own, they dug deep, found the defensive intensity and the quality offensive decision-making to put away the Hawks for the win. And while the Bonnies have talented athletes capable of making big plays, the difference with this team lies less with physical talent and more with things like trust, focus and an unwavering belief in themselves and each other.
"They're mentally tough," Saint Joseph's coach Cindy Griffin said. "When things don't go their way, they're tough. I give Jim a lot of credit. When we went up seven, he let them play through it. That's knowing your team, knowing your kids can handle it. That said a lot to me. Most people call a time out, and he knew his kids were tough enough to fight through it."
That mental toughness has Bona in an unfamiliar spot. At 7-0 in the Atlantic 10, the Bonnies sit alone in first place. At 20-2 overall and with an RPI at 25 according to realtimerpi.com (with nine quality wins and no bad losses), Bona could become the first Big 4 women's team to crack the Associated Press Division I Top 25 when the poll is released later today.
Surprised? Not if you've been paying attention to what Crowley and his staff have been building in Olean over the last few seasons. Over the last four years, the Bonnies have developed a winning attitude. Down double digits in the second half? No problem. On the road? Been there. In a WNIT game? Done that.
Crowley admits he'd rather his team not get into those situations. Dramatic come-from-behind wins aren't something to bank on. Still, the confidence and culture of trust that those wins have cultivated has proven to be one of the keys to success.
Take for instance that win against Saint Joseph's. Jessica Jenkins and Megan Van Tatenhove were ineffective offensively. The senior leaders couldn't shake their defenders and the Hawks weren't going to leave their assignments on two of the best players in the conference. So what happens? Sophomore Doris Ortega puts up a career-best 20 points, thanks in large part to the encouragement of her teammates.
"Megan and Jess basically told me to keep going, that I was doing a good job and keeping the team in the game," Ortega said. "It's good to hear the seniors tell you that. It helps you keep battling."
The seniors know all about the team concept. They also know all about winning. With a 75-57 win at La Salle on Saturday, the team notched its fourth straight 20-win season. With 87 wins they are the winningest class in Bona women's Division I history. Jenkins and Van Tatenhove get the headlines with their ability to score, but they will be as quick as anyone to point out the key contributions of fellow starter Armelia Horton, a defensive specialist, and reserve forward Jennie Ashton, who embodies the intangibles necessary of a "role player" with such enthusiasm she inspires the coaching staff and starters on a daily basis.
Bona has built its success on defense, a strong commitment to team and individual players not just buying into the coach-speak of "roles" but truly embracing the concept. No role is too small on this team because at any time, any player can be the go-to-gal who leads the team to victory.
"We talk about playing hard and playing for one another," Crowley said. "We talk all the time about playing for the person next to you. The kids believe that. Bad days will happen. Someone else will step up."
And those bad days, well, they just don't last in Bonaland. Take Jenkins. She's had two terribly off games but followed them up with outstanding performances. In a loss to Villanova, Jenkins scored just four points, going 2-for-13 and 0-for-8 from three-point range. She came back with a 24-point performance on 8-for-10 three-point shooting against Norfolk State. Against Saint Joseph's, she scored just six points going 2-for-8 from the field. She followed that up with 28 points on 8-for-13 shooting from three-point range in the win at La Salle.
"That's what makes Jessica special is that she doesn't go into slumps," Crowley said. "She fights out in a big way. That's just a true testament to her work ethic and her competitive spirit."
While the Bonnies went 8-0 in January, February isn't easy. They play at Duquesne on Wednesday. While they beat the Dukes in Olean on Jan. 7, this is a potentially troubling matchup. Bona then hosts George Washington on Saturday and still has a game at Dayton (Feb. 11) while closing out its home schedule with Xavier (Feb. 18) and Fordham (Feb. 22).