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Bonnies outlast tough Rams; Women clinch first A-10 title for school

When the St. Bonaventure women's basketball team finally grabbed a lead late in the first half, nearly 2,000 fans in the Reilly Center were on their feet, offering any kind of emotional boost they could.

Frankly, the Bonnies needed every bit of extra energy. They were up against the best defensive team in the Atlantic 10 and dealing with the pressure that comes when you're ranked 19th in the country.

With key plays at key times, the Bonnies gutted out a 52-45 win over Fordham on Wednesday night. That secured the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic 10 Tournament and at least a share of the regular-season title -- the first regular-season title for a team sport in the A-10 in school history.

"Here's the thing. There were years when we struggled to get 100 people in here," Bona coach Jim Crowley said. "We've come full circle not just in support and having people behind us but to get the No. 1 seed? That's not supposed to happen.

"Look over the last 10 years and the teams who have been No. 1 in our conference. Look at the size of the school, where they're located, their funding. This is not supposed to happen. And it just did. It's unfathomable to everyone except these players. They saw it, went after it and got it. No one can take that way from them."

By earning the top seed for next week's A-10 tournament, Bona (26-2, 13-0) plays in the noon quarterfinal against the winner of the opening-round 8-9 game. For senior Jessica Jenkins, seedings and national rankings are only a means to an end, not a goal in themselves.

"It feels good but to be honest it wasn't our goal at the beginning of the year," Jenkins said. "Our only goal was to get to the NCAA Tournament and this helps us with that. I think it's great but we move on. It wasn't one of our goals. We haven't gotten to our goal yet."

In many ways, the victory was typical of St. Bonaventure. Jenkins (17 points) and Megan Van Tatenhove (14 points) led the offense. But Chelsea Bowker pulled down some key defensive rebounds. CeCe Dixon made big plays on defense and in running the offense.

The plays were critical for the Bonnies, who trailed for the majority of the game. They lacked aggression in the paint in the first half and they were slapped around on the glass all game by a disciplined Fordham team, which held the Bonnies to just one offensive rebound.

Fordham took a 27-21 halftime lead, thanks to solid defense, rebounding and five three-pointers. The Rams (11-17, 2-11) weren't going to give up easily as the team entered the game fighting for the 12th and final A-10 playoff spot. But depth became a factor for the Rams just when Bona raised its intensity level.

"I think our kids understand the only way we're going to stay in games is to play defense," Fordham coach Stephanie Gaitely said. "I'm really proud of our effort. We're a very limited team and don't have a lot of options. St. Bonaventure is an outstanding team. They're a very unselfish group."

With 6:42 left to play, Dixon hit a three-pointer to put Bona up 39-37 -- its first lead since 13-11 at 10:08 of the first half. A jumper from Van Tatenhove and two free throws from Jenkins gave Bona some breathing room.

The Bonnies close out the regular season Saturday at Rhode Island. A victory would give Bona the regular-season title outright. A loss for Bona coupled with a win by Temple at LaSalle would give the Owls a share of the regular-season title. But Bona holds the tie-breaker and hence clinched the top tourney spot.