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COMMENTARY

NCAAs remain within reach as St. Bonaventure beats UMass by a blink

ALLEGANY – Mark Schmidt was so caught up in the moment Saturday that he really didn’t know who won when the buzzer sounded. Of course, it didn’t stop him from waving his arms at the officials and selling the idea that Dante Clark’s three-pointer was too late.

Replays confirmed what Schmidt had hoped, what his assistant coaches suspected, what St. Bonaventure desperately needed. Clark’s shot from the corner was released just after the horn, allowing the Bonnies to walk away with an 85-83 victory over Massachusetts in another heart-pounding thriller in the Reilly Center.

“I had no idea,” Schmidt said afterward. “I asked my assistants if it was good, and they said no. They were adamant. But the longer they looked at it … was it close?”

Heck, yeah, it was close.

It has been tight virtually all season. Schmidt counted nine games this season that have been decided by three possessions or fewer. The Atlantic 10 is closer than triplets in the womb, and the game Saturday against a determined UMass team in the bottom half of the conference couldn’t get much closer.

St. Bonaventure came back from an 18-point first-half deficit, won for the eighth time in nine games and secured no worse than fourth place in the A-10. The Bonnies improved to 20-7 overall, giving them their first 20-win regular season in 39 years, and improved to 12-4 in the conference, a school record after 37 seasons in the Atlantic 10.

How much of a difference can one-tenth of a second make?

If there had been 4.7 seconds on the clock for UMass’ final possession rather than 4.6 seconds, the Bonnies would have lost Saturday. Their chances of getting an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999-00 would have been severely damaged, if not sent to the ashes.

Instead, the Bonnies secured an extra rest day going into the conference tourney. They could finish second in the conference if they win their final two games – against Saint Joseph’s in Rochester on Wednesday and at Saint Louis next weekend – and results in other conference games fall in their favor.

The win Saturday, even though it came against a team that fell to 5-11 in the A-10 and 12-16 overall, could have monumental implications. In the past three weeks alone, the Bonnies had a three-point win over Saint Louis at the buzzer, an overtime win over Fordham, a nail-biter against Duquesne and the wild one Saturday.

St. Bonaventure survived enough photo finishes this season to build equity going into the conference tourney. It doesn’t mean they can afford to lose their final two games or suffer an early exit, but by winning Saturday they could lose to Saint Joseph’s and still get an at-large bid if they reached the tournament final.

Quite literally, it could have gone the other way in the blink of an eye.

“It’s crazy, but like coach said, we’re used to these situations,” senior guard Marcus Posley said. “Everybody tried to prevent these situations, but it’s just how the ball bounces sometimes. It comes down to who can find a way to execute in the final stretch. We find a way to execute.”

For nine straight years, the Atlantic 10 has had three teams or more in the NCAA Tournament. Two years ago, it had six in the Big Dance, and five the previous year. In the past five years, every A-10 team that received an at-large bid won 23 games or more during the regular season.

If given a do-over, Bona likely would have picked a nonconference game for their visit to Rochester over the matchup Wednesday against Saint Joseph’s. Even with students gone for spring break, the comforts of the Reilly Center, which was louder Saturday than any game all season, would have given them an advantage.

Who knew Wednesday’s game would be so important?

The president of the Bona booster club wouldn’t have predicted they would finish no worse than fourth in the rugged A-10. By winning their final two games and reaching the A-10 tourney final, even if they lost the championship game, they would have 24 victories.

It should be enough, but there’s still work ahead.

The Bonnies had no excuse Saturday for allowing a 26-4 run, at home, to a team with a 5-10 record in the conference. Bona has been in enough games against good teams to know how to stop the bleeding. For a six-minute stretch in the first half, they couldn’t have stopped Archbishop Walsh.

Simply, their mental lapses and lackadaisical play in the first half was unbecoming of a team looking for an NCAA bid. But to dismiss them for atrocious stretches or poor halves would also mean ignoring an unmistakable resourcefulness and grittiness that keeps them coming back.

“For what they were playing for and the crowd they had and the guys they had on their team, they weren’t going away,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “That was not going to happen.”

And it didn’t happen.

The Bonnies’ response to a lousy first half was a 13-2 run in the second and eventually tying the game. They were ready for a dogfight that has become standard for conference play. They were down five points with 3½ minutes remaining. They came through in the final 13 seconds.

Posley converted a three-point play. Dion Wright was fouled and made one of two from the line. UMass had a chance. It drew up a successful play for a good shot and had the look it wanted. Clark came through in the clutch. He made the shot with Wright closing fast. Bonaventure still won, albeit by a hair.

“The difference between winning and losing is so small,” Schmidt said. “It’s so minute, the difference between winning and losing in sport. It’s just how it is. We’re winners and UMass are losers. It came down to a tick of the clock.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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