ALLEGANY – After watching St. Bonaventure leave the Reilly Center with yet another narrow victory Wednesday, Duquesne coach Jim Ferry pinched his index finger a quarter-inch from his thumb and explained the difference between winning and losing in the Atlantic 10.
The Bonnies came back from an eight-point deficit in the second half to beat the Dukes, 80-76, before 4,101 fans who have grown accustomed to tight games. Once again, they withstood the pressure. Once again, they came through in the final moments. And once again, they made things interesting to the end.
“I’m more confident because we got it done,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said after the game. “We have good players. We have tough players. We have mentally tougher players and guys who have been there before. Once you’ve been there before, it’s easier.”
They won for the sixth time in seven games. They’re 11-4 in the conference and 19-7 overall, matching their most wins in the A-10 and most wins under Schmidt. They’re a game behind three teams for first place and currently hold the tiebreaker over one of them. Who would have imagined?
Still, nothing is ever easy for this team. Never mind throwing T-shirts into the stands. They should hand out defibrillators at the door.
The difference between these Bonnies and their predecessors comes down to chemistry and chutzpah. Their unwavering faith in one another and collective confidence makes them a little tougher than they appear and very dangerous against teams that underestimate them.
Now, this team believes.
Nothing improves the atmosphere like winning, but nothing brings a team closer together than surviving close games. Jaylen Adams’ winner at the buzzer against Saint Louis contributed to an overtime win at Fordham. The bad loss to La Salle was a reminder that they needed more to beat a team like Dayton.
Once again, it was Adams who bailed them out of a jam Wednesday.
The sophomore guard, who finished with 24 points, has blossomed before our eyes this season, particularly over the past month. He made back-to-back threes to erase a six-point deficit in the final eight minutes, scored eight straight at one point and had 18 in the second half.
“We were pretty confident,” Adams said. “We knew we could pull it out at the end. We have the type of guys that build up the energy in the crowd. We were at a point of desperation.”
Marcus Posley made a three from the left wing with about 3½ minutes left to give the Bonnies their first lead of the second half. Adams made four straight free throws. Dion Wright made three critical free throws in the final 20 seconds. And the Bonnies allowed only two field goals in the final seven minutes.
“It would be different if we tied the score and we’re 0-5 in that situation,” Schmidt said. “Jack Nicklaus always says that you learn how to win by winning. The more you’re in a situation, the more you have success in that situation, the more comfortable and confident you’re going to be when it comes again.”
The Bonnies are evolving into something special under Schmidt, who for years has overcome obvious disadvantages when it comes to recruiting while building competitive teams. Schmidt is a fantastic coach, a godsend for a troubled program with an uncertain future before he arrived.
Why another school hasn’t stolen him away with a gym bag loaded with cash is a mystery. Boston College must realize it made a mistake by looking past him a few years ago. If Bobby Hurley can wind up in a power conference after two seasons in Buffalo, it’s a matter of time before Schmidt gets an offer he can’t refuse.
Bona fans should enjoy him as much as they can while they can.
For all his good work at St. Bonaventure – pulling a wobbling program from the ruins, winning the conference tournament and reaching the NCAAs in 2011-12, developing players others ignored – he saved his best coaching for this year. He turned a team picked eighth in the A-10 into one worthy of an at-large bid.
Duquesne’s size made things difficult inside on both ends for Wright and freshmen Jordan Tyson and Derrick Woods, who had their hands full with 6-11 center Darius Lewis and 6-8 power forward L.G. Gill. It was incumbent on Bona’s guards to help on the boards and handle a bigger load that already was heavy.
You watch Duquesne play Wednesday and wonder how they entered the game with a 5-9 record in the conference. But that’s the Atlantic 10. As the Bonnies know all too well, anything can happen on a given night.
Posley has started slowly numerous times this season, and it took him a while to get involved Wednesday night. He didn’t hit his first shot against Duquesne until 5:19 remained in the first half. He missed six of his seven before driving the lane and burying a three in a 30-second stretch in the final minute of the first half.
Often, it comes down to how well they play during crunch time.
While other teams buckled under pressure, the Bonnies flourished. It comes with playing so many close games in a tight conference. Posley, Adams and Wright have a knack for remaining calm when games get chaotic, steady hands who know how to lead their team from danger.
It’s only a matter of time before one of their reliable leaders comes through. Adams, Posley and Wright came up big when it mattered most Wednesday. Bona’s guards helped out on the boards in the second half. They picked up the intensity on defense. They started making shots.
That’s what good teams do, and Bona has a very good team. More times than not, they have found a way to avoid getting pinched.