Sometimes a basketball game can be noteworthy because it follows the anticipated script. And sometimes it can be significant because it unveils the unexpected. St. Bonaventure's 79-69 victory over Niagara Saturday afternoon in the opener of the Big 4 Classic satisfied on both counts.
A close game midway through the second half turned Bona's way in most predictable fashion – a schooling with junior guard Jaylen Adams serving as headmaster. The Bonnies 11-0 run to a 58-45 advantage was all Adams' doing and featured three threes and a pair of free throws. It was as if he was lurking in the shadows and waiting for the game to reach a pivotal juncture before stepping forth to further validate his reputation as a first-team Atlantic 10 talent and one of 50 nominees for the John Wooden Award as the nation's best player.
"I thought Jay was the difference," said Bona coach Mark Schmidt, who must have that quote on something akin to it on speed dial. "We were struggling as times, we were a little bit lethargic but I thought Jay really picked us up."
"I think it's just a matter of feeling the game out," Adams said.
Adams finished with a game-high 23 points, a sliver above his season average. The bulk of his scoring in both halves came in rally-defusing spurts that had stirred Niagara's upset hopes.
"If you watch him on tape, which we did a lot of, he shows flashes where he could be a pro," Niagara coach Chris Casey said. "I mean, he's a very good player. He scores from all three levels, he shoots it mid-range and he gets to the basket. And he's good making plays for other guys, too. A couple times when we were right there and he made some big plays. So credit to him on that."
As for what was unexpected at season's start one month ago, Niagara's improving performances continues to open eyes, as do the minutes Bona (7-3) has been utilizing Amadi Ikpeze, the 6-foot-10 freshman from Amherst many felt might need two years of seasoning before becoming a solid contributor.
First, on Ikpeze. An injury up front to Chinonso Obokoh has given Bona need and Ikpeze has seized the opportunity. He was far from outstanding Saturday, contributing two points on 1-for-4 shooting, four rebounds and a block in 13 minutes. Nonetheless, he's becoming a reliable asset as a big-body presence. This was his third straight game with double-figure minutes. In the last, against an excellent North Carolina-Wilmington team, he struck for eight points and two boards in 12 minutes.
"With Chino hurt, it gives him a chance or an opportunity, and he's got a bright future," Schmidt said. "He can rebound, he's got a good body. He's still learning the game but he gives us some size inside, a presence inside. ... The more he plays the more opportunity he has, and the opportunity he has with Chino out he's taken advantage of."
In Niagara's case, it's been a tough go on Monteagle Ridge since coach Joe Mihalich left for Hofstra and a mass player exodus not only ensued, but persisted. Coach Chris Casey has kept plugging away and welcomed some fresh talent this season. The Purple Eagles, at 3-9, are still far from making big waves but their time could be coming. Their victory over Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorite Iona was a stunner, and its to their credit they forced Adams to take over Saturday lest the game remain tight down the stretch.
The Purple Eagles have guards who can score (newcomer Khalil Dukes netted 21 Saturday) but perhaps the biggest change over last year's 7-25 season is the improved play of 6-8 Dominic Robb, a sophomore from Pittsburgh. He gave a long and physical Bona front line trouble and finished with 13 points (5-of-6 shooting) and a team-high seven boards in 28 minutes.
"I feel 10 times more comfortable this year," Robb said. "I've been working so hard all summer and through the practices and I've been more prepared. I feel more confident in all my moves, I feel more confident rebounding the ball. I need to get better at all those things to help our team more and get some wins, but I mean I feel so much more confident than last year and it's been working out for me."