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Playing loose should be game plan for Bonnies

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The chorus from basketball teams in the NCAA Tournament might as well be sung in concert. We didn’t work all year long, and come all this way, they say, to lose in the first round. For many teams, there couldn’t be a worse mindset.

Pressure mounts as the stakes get higher. The difference can be felt between the nonconference schedule and league play. It gets amped up for the conference tournament and can become unbearable in March when the Big Dance goes into full swing. But, really, pressure should only apply to the lone unbeaten women’s team, Connecticut.

Losing is the last thing mid-majors should fear. St. Bonaventure, playing with house money, has nothing to lose from this point forward other than a basketball game. The University at Buffalo showed what can happen when a team plays loose. The Bulls had an 8-10 record in the Mid-American Conference before winning the tournament.

The Bonnies had a terrific year before chucking up a proverbial air ball in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament. They were terrible in the first half and left Richmond with a one-and-done loss to Virginia Commonwealth. In that game, they tried not to lose – rather than play to win – and succumbed to the jitters.

“You were watching a team – with their reactions, with their play, with everything – that was tight,” St. Bonaventure coach Jim Crowley said Thursday before practice at Oregon State University. “We were missing easy shots. We were taking shots we don’t normally take. Once our name came up on Monday, it all went away.”

On Monday, Bona received an at-large bid in the NCAAs thanks largely to their 23-7 record, the No. 34 spot on the Ratings Percentage Index, three wins against Top 50 teams and three wins against conference champions. The 10th-seeded Bonnies will play seventh-seeded Oklahoma State on Friday at Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum.

Really, what’s to lose?

Sometimes, when a team catches a break, as the Bonnies did with this tournament, there’s an infusion of energy that might have been missing with an automatic bid. It’s as if they were T-boned at an intersection and walked away without a scratch. Given the reprieve, they want to extend the ride for as long as possible.

“We’re really excited for the postseason opportunity,” point guard Emily Michael said. “Before practice, we’ll joke around. But when it’s time to lock in, we lock in. But there is a sense of calmness and excitement back in our team.”

Bona jumped at the opportunity to travel across the country to an out-of-the way college town similar to their own. Now 3,000 miles from home, St. Bonaventure can loosen the noose and just play. That’s when a team becomes dangerous. If they can rediscover the team that won 16 consecutive games this season, well, you never know.

Anything can happen in March.

“It takes a lot of pressure off,” said Lancaster native Katie Healy, the Bonnies’ leading scorer and best player. “Late in the season, we thought we needed a lot of wins. Getting in was a big relief. Now we can play loose. That’s when our team is at our best, when we just play freely.”

The Bonnies are trying to enjoy the experience, but they didn’t take a team vacation to Oregon. They would take great joy in a bracket-busting victory over Oklahoma State. The Bonnies aren’t expected to win, but they can. It’s possible. It depends on how they respond to varying degrees of discomfort.

Sure, they need a few things to lean in their direction. They need to make shots from the perimeter. They need to play sound team defense and handle the redwoods making up Oklahoma State’s front line. They need to limit turnovers. Really, though, they need to get out of their own way.

Bonnies, let it fly.

“That’s the hope,” Crowley said. “It sounds simple, but if we can throw a shot in early ... That happened in the Saint Louis game. A shot goes in early, and it’s like, ‘Yeah, OK, we know how to do this.’ ”

The game Friday night marks the first Big Dance for current Bona players, but it’s not Crowley’s first formal. In 2011-12, he guided the Bonnies to a 31-4 record and reached the Sweet 16. That team embraced its own success and fed off pressure before meeting the reality that was fourth-ranked Notre Dame.

Indeed, Bona faces a heavy lift.

Oklahoma State is bigger, more athletic and plays in a power conference. The Cowgirls have the Big 12 Player of the Year in Brittney Martin, who averaged a double-double this season. Like Crowley said, Bona isn’t going to win the layup line. The Bonnies are trying to be the better team on a given night.

The trick to winning the game is getting off to a better start than the one they had in Richmond. It begins with converting a few baskets in the opening minutes and injecting confidence and fueling hope.

Suddenly, the challenge doesn’t seem so daunting. The game starts to come easy again, as it did during their 16-game winning streak. Oklahoma State lost five of its final eight games. The Bonnies are trying to beat them, not a UConn team that entered the tournament with a 32-0 record.

“We’ve had 120 practices,” Crowley said. “We’re not complicated. We run the same offense. We run the same defense. This is what we do, so let’s do it. Let’s play hard and do it. Let the chips fall. If they’re better than us, and we compete really hard, well, that’s what the tournament is about.”


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