OLEAN – Youssou Ndoye tried explaining what it all meant Saturday after playing his final game in the Reilly Center. He realized it was a task too tall.
Really, how do you condense a boy growing up in Senegal evolving into a man at St. Bonaventure in one neat, clean sound byte?
“Man, I don’t know,” Ndoye said. “It’s a long story.”
The short story is that he played soccer as a child in Dakar, became too tall for the sport, was introduced to basketball, grew to 7 feet and landed at St. Bonaventure. Four years later, he took his final bow with 22 seconds remaining Saturday in the Bonnies’ 66-52 win over Fordham.
Ndoye walked off the floor with victory in hand, making sure he hugged coach Mark Schmidt before embracing everyone involved with the program. It was his way of publicly thanking St. Bonaventure for giving him an opportunity, for being patient, for handing him an education that otherwise would have been out of reach.
In return, his teammates and the 3,555 fans in attendance on their feet made sure they thanked the gentle giant for never taking his experience for granted, for putting in the work required and developing into one of the better big men in recent memory, for reminding us how it should work when it comes to college sports.
“Basketball was a tool to me,” Ndoye said. “Education was what brought me here. I took my competitive nature to the basketball court. … It’s crazy. This is really humbling. I will never forget this. I will take this anywhere I go. I learned so much stuff being around my teammates.”
Ndoye was a major project when he arrived four years ago after attending a prep school in Maine. Schmidt said other coaches laughed at him for taking a chance on a kid who had played two years of organized ball. He saw enough raw ability to believe he could turn the kid into a basketball player.
Boy, did he ever learn.
St. Bonaventure has its shortcomings going into the Atlantic 10 Tournament next week in Brooklyn. The Bonnies lack depth and are short on skill in certain areas. They don’t have a pure scorer. They have been without a true point guard since Jaylen Adams suffered a broken ring finger that required surgery.
But they have one player that other teams do not, a true center who can run the floor, rebound, block shots and give them an offensive presence inside. Ndoye blossomed between his sophomore and junior years. He’s still working on his game as a senior, but more than anything he gives Bona a chance to beat anyone.
“The development of Ndoye has been incredible,” Fordham coach Tom Pecora said. “He really has become an exceptional player.”
Ndoye finished his regular-season career with 15 points, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots and heaven knows how many shots that were changed when he stretched his frame across the lane Saturday. He had a quiet first half before taking over on both ends in the second as Bona took off on a 24-4 run en route to a rout.
The Bonnies can compete with him in the lineup, but they become a good team when he asserts himself the way he did Saturday and they share the ball around him. The Bonnies were trailing, 36-35, with 15 minutes remaining when he made a 17-foot jump shot to start them on their way.
Suddenly, everything came together for the Bonnies the way everything has come together over the past two seasons for Ndoye. They tightened their defense and didn’t allow a field goal for more than 10 minutes. Andell Cumberbatch, playing his last home game, buried two threes. Dion Wright worked inside, Marcus Posley outside. “No one played well in the first half,” Schmidt said. “In the second half, we couldn’t have played better.”
St. Bonaventure finished 17-12 overall, won 10 conference games and had a school-record eight road wins overall this season. The Bonnies won their final three games and four of their last five contests, earning a seventh seed for the A-10 tourney. They will play Saint Joseph’s at 6:30 Thursday evening at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Adams will be examined this week and could be available. He still needs practice before getting thrown into the intensity of a conference tourney. Schmidt has addressed his absence by playing point guards by committee. Posley was given much of the workload Saturday and led the Bonnies with 18 points.
St. Bonaventure can be a very good team when playing together, as it showed when taking down Davidson and Virginia Commonwealth in consecutive games early last month. However, they’re equally capable of coming apart, as they did in three straight losses that followed against UMass, Dayton and Richmond.
It could be a quick exit if Bona plays the way it played against Fordham in the first half. The Bonnies came out flat and were out of sorts in the first half. They were at their worst before coming together in the second half, thanks largely to Ndoye.
The challenge now is sticking around for as long as possible. He may have played his last game at the Reilly Center, but he’s not finished yet. He has been waiting for years to add another chapter to a story about a kid who left Senegal for an education in the United States and became a very good player.
“This is what you practice for,” Ndoye said. “Since the summer, you want to get yourself as ready as possible for the tournament. This is it, man. We got to go for it.”