ALLEGANY – The last time St. Bonaventure played in the Reilly Center, a basketball game broke out during a communal celebration. The students were home for the holidays, replaced by the townsfolk who filled the building while welcoming back the Bonnies from their big win over Syracuse.
Bona was sitting pretty at 11-2, creeping onto the national radar while getting votes in the Top 25 poll. If there was anything unnerving about their surge during non-conference play, which also included a victory Maryland, it was the Bonnies being in foreign territory when it came to soaring expectations.
Two years ago, they surprised many when they won 10 of their final 11 games, surged up the standings and grabbed a share of Atlantic 10 title. But after a first-round knockout in the A-10 tournament and finishing with a 22-9 record, they were left off the invitation list for the NCAA Tournament.
We’ve grown accustomed to teams like Dayton and Virginia Commonwealth finishing near the top of the A-10. St. Bonaventure is usually somewhere in the middle while hoping for the best. For years, outsiders were impressed when the Bonnies held their own in a tough, competitive conference.
The standards have been raised. In addition to the team listed on the schedule, the Bonnies are facing another opponent every game: themselves. How they handle the pressure, knowing they're going to get the opposition's best punch, will determine how the season plays out.
"Oh yeah, our guys understand," Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. "When we were picked low, you always had the chip on your shoulder, you know, let's show them. It's human nature: If you're picked low, and someone is picked higher, you have to go out there give your best effort."
Bona had a slow start while adjusting to Fordham's zone defense before coming together in the second half en route to a 77-61 victory in the Reilly Center. The Bonnies blew open a competitive game with a 17-5 run, opened up a 70-51 lead with four minutes remaining and cruised home against an inferior Fordham team.
Junior forward LaDarien Griffin led the Bonnies with 21 points and 14 rebounds, both career highs, while finding soft spots in Fordham's zone defense. Courtney Stockard had 13 points while Adams finished with 10 and Mobley eight. St. Bonaventure improved to 12-4 overall and 2-2 in the A-10.
For the first time all year, their success wasn't incumbent on the play of senior guards Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. It was a good sign for the Bonnies, who outscored Fordham, 52-18, in the paint. If they're going to become an elite team, they'll need offensive production inside when teams take away the perimeter.
"It takes 12 guys on a team to be successful; it's not just two guys," Griffin said. "Those guys are unselfish. When they're scoring 60, people forget they can also pass. Today, they had to be passers more than shooters."
Adams had shown cracks in his game during road losses to Dayton and Saint Joseph's leading into the matchup with Fordham. He didn't shoot well against Dayton and had five turnovers against St. Joe's. At times, he looked frustrated after the Hawks' tough defense took Mobley out of the game.
St. Bonaventure still looked out of sorts in the first half Wednesday before getting into gear on both ends of the floor. Adams was in early foul trouble and spent more than 14½ minutes on the bench before intermission. He had two points in the first 20 minutes, and Mobley was scoreless, while Bona struggled to a 34-31 lead.
Mobley, the Bonnies' second-leading scorer, was held to two points against St. Joe's and didn’t score until the second half against Fordham. Before that, he took only six shots since the first half in Philadelphia. Mobley and Adams combined for 60 points against UMass, their most ever, but accounted for 18 points, their fewest ever in a game when both were healthy, against Fordham.
A rough patch? Perhaps, but it also was a product of teams, in this case Fordham, making a concerted effort to stop them and taking their chances with the other three players on the floor. Bona has others players who can score, too, including Griffin.
"When you get more guys that can score, it's harder for the defense to defend you," Schmidt said. "When they try to take away Jay or Matt or both, we have other guys that can step up and have shown they can do that. They have to continue to do that because that's what teams are going to try to do."
Fordham offered Bona an opportunity to gather itself and reset midway through a treacherous stretch of their schedule. The Bonnies lost conference road games to Dayton and St. Joe's before Fordham. They're back on the road against Rhode Island in a matchup between preseason favorites before traveling to Davidson.
Less than two weeks ago, the Bonnies finishing with 14-4 or better in the conference seemed within reach. They opened A-10 play with a 98-78 win over UMass in a game they could have named the score. With two losses in their first three conference games, it could be a tall order. But that remains a goal.
"Mark Schmidt has done a terrific job with this program, just absolutely amazing," Fordham coach Jeff Neubauer said. "From when he got here, he has built it into much more than competitive team. He's built it into one of the best programs in the Atlantic 10. You should be proud to have him."
In other years, road losses to Dayton and St. Joe's quickly would have been dismissed amid the brutality of the conference. Dayton for years has had good teams and is particularly stubborn at home. St. Joe's was picked to finish third, one spot behind Bona, so its 85-78 win was hardly an upset.
Take a closer look: Dayton's response to their convincing win over the Bonnies was a home loss to UMass that was without two starters. St. Joe's was missing two top players when beat Bona.
Looking back, maybe the Bonnies' early success came too easy. Or perhaps they lost sight of what made them so effective in the first place. The challenge now is playing like the team that started the season, 11-2, the team that looked lost for two games before finding its way Wednesday.
"Even if we were coming off two wins, this was a big game because it was a home game," Schmidt said. "You need to protect your home court. Seventy-five percent of the games are won by the home team. To come home, it was a needed win. It was a must-win. To have a successful season, you want to protect the Reilly Center."