PITTSBURGH – Mark Schmidt stood before his players in preparation for Massachusetts and shared his theory on the defense geared specifically to stopping Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. Really, no matter how effective, the message from UMass was an affront to everyone else in the program.
“It’s telling those other three kids: ‘You stink,’ Schmidt said. “It’s almost disrespectful. They’re taking away, quote, our two best players. They’re saying to the other guys, ‘You guys can’t play.’ We challenged those guys and said, ‘You guys are Atlantic 10 players. You’re good players. Make them pay.’”
St. Bonaventure could withstand only so many insults while squeezing out a victory over UMass in the regular-season finale last Saturday. The Bonnies settled the score Thursday afternoon in a 73-60 victory over the Minutemen in the pre-quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Not only did St. Bonaventure send UMass home with a 15-18 record, it sent Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg to the employment line after nine seasons. He had a pink slip waiting for him upon leaving PPG Paints Arena after the game. Who knows? Maybe his gimmick defense against Bona contributed to his unceremonious kick to the curb.
The Bonnies (20-11) unleashed their frustration in the first half, when they put together their best 20 minutes in months. They established themselves as the superior team and beat UMass for the third time this season while playing stifling defense and conducting a clinic on how to beat the triangle-and-two.
“It’s tough to beat any team three times,” Adams said. “They know what we do. We know what they do. It comes down to who is tougher. I thought we came out, we competed and we fought.”
UMass, bloodied and beaten, was practically begging for forgiveness midway through the second half when Mobley made two free throws to give Bona a 60-35 lead. Mobley finished with 19 points in a balanced offensive attack that included four players scoring in double figures for St. Bonaventure. Adams added 17 points.
It was hardly just them Saturday.
The Bonnies arrived a day early and spent a bulk of their practice time at Duquesne University working in mid-range jump shots from the foul line and the baseline. If UMass was intent on taking away Adams and Mobley, as they did Saturday, they were rolling the dice against Josh Ayeni, David Andoh and Denzel Gregg.
Sure enough, Ayeni opened the game with a baseline jumper. Mobley made a three-pointer and regained his confidence after playing his worst game of the season in the finale. Gregg drove the lane and made a 12-footer for another bucket. Adams made a layup, and Andoh added another basket in the lane.
The same Bona team that struggled to come together Saturday suddenly had five players contributing against UMass in the rematch. It was only a matter of time before the Bonnies assumed command. They pulled away with a 10-0 run, added a 16-6 outburst just before the half and started planning for Rhode Island.
“We knew they were going to the triangle-and-two, and there were going to be other people open,” Mobley said. “We knocked down shots early and forced them to get out of it.”
Andoh finished with 12 points while Ayena had 10. Gregg added eight points and eight rebounds. It needs to continue Friday. The Bonnies had a stretch of sloppiness after building a big lead before Schmidt slammed his clipboard and reeled in his players during a timeout with six minutes left. St. Bonaventure can ill afford to get comfortable with any lead against any team in tournament play.
Bona, the fifth seed, still needs three more wins to reach the NCAA Tournament, but they played like a team prepared to compete with anybody in the A-10 tourney. The Bonnies will face a much stiffer opponent in Rhode Island on Friday afternoon as the tournament resumes in Pittsburgh.
Rhode Island, the third seed, received a double-bye after winning its final five games, and nine of its last 11. The Rams haven’t played since last Saturday, which could put them at a minor disadvantage. This marks the first year the conference tournament was held in the House that Sid Built.
In their only meeting this season, Rhode Island prevailed with a 71-59 win at home over Bona on Jan. 28. Senior forward Hassan Martin had a game-high 20 points in that game for the Rams, who limited the Bonnies to 22 points in the first half. Bona led the conference in offense while Rhode Island was the best defensive team.
“We’ve got to play better,” Schmidt said. “We’ve got to match them more on the backboard. We’ve got to take care of the basketball. They are the polar opposite of what you saw today with UMass and the zone and triangle-and-two. We’re just going to play our best and see what happens.”
Schmidt is a terrific coach, so he figured to make adjustments in the third meeting with UMass. Sure enough, he added a wrinkle when he inserted sophomore guard Nelson Kaputo with about six minutes left in the first half. It gave the Bonnies more speed and another threat on the perimeter.
Kaputo had played fewer than 10 minutes in 13 consecutive games going into the conference tourney, including two games in which he sat the entire game. He was ready when Schmidt summoned him Thursday. UMass was not. The Bonnies outscored the Minutemen, 19-8, with him in the first half.
Mobley looked like an assertive, confident player in the first half after playing his worst game of the season in the regular-season finale. The Bonnies made 55.5 percent of their shots in the first half while limiting UMass to 38.5 percent from the floor. Bona couldn’t have played much better in the first 20 minutes.
UMass paid the price.
“We’ve got to take care of the ball,” Mobley said. “Play aggressive. Don’t get too stagnant. We just have to play aggressive and knock down shots.”