Last weekend, after an uneventful season debut against UB, St. Bonaventure guard Jaylen Adams made something clear. Never mind the air ball on his first outside shot and the nine points he scored in 28 minutes. What would you expect? He was rusty after he was sidelined for a month with a sprained ankle.
"I'll get better," Adams said.
Adams isn't all the way back yet. In fact, he's a long way from becoming the dominant player and the Bonnies' centerpiece of the past two seasons. He hobbled around on a sore left ankle Wednesday night and still was effective enough to lead Bona to a 73-65 victory over Canisius before 2,196 in the Koessler Athletic Center.
The senior guard made only 4 of 16 shots, but he still finished with 20 points, nine assists and six rebounds to lead the Bonnies to their 100th victory over the Griffs in the storied history between the two teams. He grabbed a key rebound with 52 seconds left and made four free throws in the final 49 seconds.
Once again, he came through.
"Obviously, there's still a little pain, but I did some things that I wasn't doing last week," Adams said. "I just want to keep getting better, keep working on it and eventually I'll get back to my ways. It's starting to feel good. I'm getting more comfortable and more practices under my belt."
Without Adams, there's a good chance St. Bonaventure would have lost to Canisius for the second straight season. Without Isaiah Reese, there's a good chance the Griffs would have been run out of their own building. The sophomore guard was the best player on the floor in a losing effort.
Reese scored a career-high 31 points and was spectacular in the first half while almost single-handedly keeping Canisius in the game. The 6-foot-5 guard is a terrific shooter and extremely athletic, a combination that makes him dangerous anywhere on the floor. The Bonnies took turns guarding Reese with little success.
He scored one basket on a backdoor cut through the lane. He made one three-pointer from the wing. He faked going to the basket and nailed another three in Matt Mobley's face. He drove to the basket. He drew fouls. He passed the ball inside. He did everything but score the final 4½ minutes.
No wonder why Reggie Witherspoon made a strong pitch for him after taking over for Jim Baron two years ago. Reese, who was Witherspoon's first recruit, has not disappointed over his first two years. He topped his previous career high of 22 points with 7:54 remaining Wednesday but failed to score in the final 4:35.
"Really (it was) just the guys," Reese said. "They put me in position to get open shots. If it wasn't for them, I probably wouldn't have had this type of night."
Lingering effects to Adams' ankle sprain remained obvious Wednesday. Whether he was in pain or less than full strength, or both, he was limping between whistles. He ran the offense and still managed to drive to the basket, which has been a key factor in his ability to score. But he lacked quick first step and burst that made him an elite player in the conference.
Still, simply having him on the floor makes a difference.
"For the most part, he's going to make the right play," Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. "The concern is he's not (fully healthy) yet, so he doesn't have that explosion. We have to be careful. We can't put it all on him yet because he's just not there yet. But when you put the ball in his hands, as a coach, you feel confident."
Canisius stayed with Bonaventure for much of the game but fell victim to short outbursts that allowed the Bonnies to maintain control. The Griffs were within 43-42 before Bona took off on a 12-1 run early in the second half. Reese answered with a long three-pointer that was well beyond the arc to breathe life back into his team.
Matt Mobley, who was 18th in the nation in scoring at 22.3 points per game before going into the contest was held to nine points making 3 of 9 from the floor. Josh Ayeni might have had a bigger night Wednesday had he been able to stay out of foul trouble. He finished with 15 points in 14 minutes while making six shots from the same soft spot he found in Canisius' defense.
"My coach kept telling me to shoot every time," Ayeni said. "I just did what my coach asked me to do."
Like so many games in the two schools' rich hsitory, the latest matchup shaped into a dandy. Canisius kept fighting, and Bona couldn't stop Reese. Bona had a 57-47 lead before Canisius rattled off seven straight points. Adams ended that run when he set his feet and made a three from the left wing for a 60-53 advantage. Bona finished the game with an 8-2 run.
The Bonnies would have been in trouble without Adams, who could be the best player in the Atlantic 10 this season. He was named first-team all-conference as a sophomore and junior. He briefly flirted with the idea of turning pro while attending a fee NBA camps before returning for his senior year.
The idea he can play better, much better, must be terrifying for upcoming opponents because the Bonnies were pretty darned good without him. Bona was 4-2, including a win over Big 10 foe Maryland, while Adams nursed his way back to health and returned to the lineup. The Bonnies have won three straight on the road.
Bona is a dangerous team because it can play numerous ways. Teams that want to run-and-gun do so at their own peril. Adams and Mobley make up one of the better backcourts in the nation and are particularly lethal in the open floor. You want to play a half-court game? That's fine, too.
The Bonnies can pound the ball inside if necessary. They started with tight man-to-man defense Wednesday but switched to a zone late in the game, which helped keep Reese scoreless down the stretch. It's all true, but they're a much better and more versatile team with Adams quarterbacking the offense.
"I just want to be there for my guys," Adams said. "It's part of my job. It's why they elected me captain. I try to take the weight on my shoulders every game."
The next step is putting full weight on his ankle.