ALLEGANY – If you're around sports long enough, you learn that very little is required to arouse the competitive spirit of a high-level athlete. All it usually takes is a little poke at their pride or show of disrespect. They'll tap into just about anything for extra motivation in an effort to gain the slightest edge.
You can imagine how St. Bonaventure felt during warmups before playing Rhode Island last Saturday, when someone discovered a basketball with the letters N-I-T emblazoned between the seams. As you can imagine, the Bonnies were furious with the suggestion they belonged in the National Invitation Tournament.
Bona assumed the ball was slipped into their rack by someone with 16th-ranked Rhode Island, which was riding a 16-game winning streak. It's hard to fathom considering the Rams understood the difficulty in beating the Bonnies in one of the biggest games in years in the Reilly Center. Sure enough, Bona scored a 77-74 upset.
So who planted the NIT ball?
Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt insisted it wasn't him or anyone connected to his program. My apologies for suspecting he was involved, but it actually was meant as a compliment for its sheer brilliance. He can be cold and calculating, and he'll do just about anything to draw every ounce of effort from his team. It's why he's among the best coaches in the Atlantic 10.
"That would be a good thing if I was smart enough to do something like that, but I wasn't," Schmidt said. "I wasn't smart enough to do that. You're trying to motivate guys as much as you can, but I didn't do that."
Bona's objective is finishing the regular season in strong fashion and getting into position to receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. St. Bonaventure took another step Wednesday in a tough 73-67 victory over Duquesne with the usual panache the Bonnies had displayed over the past month.
The Bonnies had a difficult time getting their offense in gear against Duquesne but was relentless on defense, terrific at the foul line and came through under duress at the end. A hangover after their big win over Rhody? Maybe. Duquesne was one of the surprise teams in the conference this season, but the Dukes are nowhere near as dangerous as the top teams in the conference.
Duquesne was good enough to throw a good scare into St. Bonaventure with a trapping defense that frustrated Bona's guards while taking away their space on the perimeter. Jaylen Adams, who torched the Dukes for 40 points in the previous meeting, hit only one three but still finished with a game-high 24 points.
St. Bonaventure trailed with seven minutes left in the second half before Courtney Stockard and Adams took over. They combined to score 13 of the next 15 points and helped put the game away. Stockard made a baseline jumper before Adams knifed through the lane to give Bona a 67-63 lead going into the final minute.
Adams made two free throws with 16 seconds left to put the game out of reach. St. Bonaventure made its first 20 free throw attempts before missing two in a row in the second half and finishing 29 of 33 from the line. Twenty-one of their 41 points in the second half came from foul shots.
Amadi Ikpeze continued showing signs of improvement and finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Bonnies. He helped make the difference on a night in which Matt Mobley banged a three-pointer 53 seconds into the game and missed his remaining 10 shots from the floor. He finished with five points. The Bonnies (21-6 overall, 11-4 in the A-10) still won.
"It's been the story of our team all year," Adams said. "We haven't always played well on offense and haven't always defended well, but we found a way to win. If guys keep stepping up like that, we're going to be tough to beat."
The game wasn't nearly as attractive as the big picture. The Bonnies have won a school-record nine consecutive conference games and is capable of taking the final three. They have a tough game Saturday at VCU before returning home for a critical matchup with Davidson and finishing at Saint Louis.
Bona was deadlocked with Davidson for second place going into Wednesday's games, four wins behind Rhode Island. The Rams already locked up a share of the conference title. The Bonnies want the second seed in the conference tournament largely because they wouldn't meet Rhode Island until the championship game.
If that happens, and it's entirely possible, the Bonnies would have a strong case for the NCAAs just by reaching the conference tournament title game. It also would mean they won more than 22 games this season for the first time since 1976-77, when they finished 24-6 under Jim Satalin.
You never know with the NCAA Tournament selection committee, but it would be difficult to ignore Bona if it finished with a 23-7 record or better overall, and 13-5 or better in the conference, for the Big Dance. The Bonnies definitely helped their cause with the win over Rhode Island.
St. Bonaventure was 2-4 in the A-10 through six games, and the right side of the ledger hasn't changed in more than a month. If the Bonnies were upset about the mere suggestion they belonged in the NIT, imagine their frustration if they fell apart and actually did. That alone should be enough to motivate them over the final three games.
"Every game right now is like Game Seven," Schmidt said. "We have to play with that sense of urgency every game. Twenty-one (wins) isn't enough. Eleven (wins) in the Atlantic 10 isn't enough. Our goals is to win them all. We struggled today offensively, but we had that sense of urgency on the defensive end."