NEW YORK — St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt called freshman guard Dominick Welch the "X-factor" heading into the postseason, noting that the former Cheektowaga star had come on strong after missing nine games with a bruised foot.
But Schmidt didn't foresee a performance quite like this.
Welch set career highs with 20 points, six 3s and three blocks, and fellow freshman guard Kyle Lofton poured in 20 points, as well, as the Bonnies defeated George Mason, 68-57, in an Atlantic 10 Conference tournament quarterfinal game Friday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Fourth-seeded St. Bonaventure (17-15), which advanced to the conference semifinals for a second consecutive season, will face No. 8-seeded Rhode Island (18-14), a 75-70 upset winner over regular season champ VCU, at 1 p.m. Saturday (CBSSN) for a berth in the conference title game.
The Rams beat the Bonnies, 75-63, in their only previous meeting this season, on Jan. 16 in Rhode Island.
"We were going to have the same approach no matter what opponent it was, but we definitely owe Rhode Island a victory," Bona senior forward Courtney Stockard said. "We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the ball and hitting the glass. When we went down there early in the year, they beat us up on the glass and they forced a lot of turnovers on us, so we’re going to go back and watch a lot of film, try to correct the mistakes that we made last time and just get as prepared as we can for (Saturday)."
The Bonnies were well-rested heading into the quarterfinals, after winning seven of their final eight regular season games to earn a double bye. But they only learned their opponent a day earlier, when Mason defeated No. 12 George Washington 61-57 in the second round Thursday.
Welch shot 6 of 12 from the field, all from long range, and added five rebounds against the Patriots.
"I’ve been feeling good for a while now shooting the ball," Welch said, "so I just knew after that first one went in, I just felt good every time I shot the ball."
Lofton's 20 points also came on 6 of 12 shooting. He hit four 3s and added five assists.
Senior forward LaDarien Griffin had 10 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. Stockard had a team-high six assists.
Freshman center Osun Osunniyi had seven points, eight rebounds and three blocks to give him 84 this season, establishing a new St. Bonaventure freshman single-season record. He entered the game with 81 blocks, tying the previous freshman mark set by Andrew Nicholson in 2008-09.
"The reason why we’re where we’re at is because of the freshmen," Schmidt said. "We got good leadership from LaDarien and Courtney when they got healthy, but those three young guys have really blossomed into really good players. Dom was a little bit behind because he missed eight or nine games because of injury. But they play like veteran guys. They’re not caught up in the environment."
Justin Kier scored a team-high 20 points for No. 5-seeded George Mason (18-15), which was limited to 35 percent shooting from the field.
St. Bonaventure shot 40.7 percent overall and 41.7 percent (10 of 24) from 3-point range.
The Bonnies missed their first six field goal attempts, then shot 61.9 percent for the rest of the half to take a 34-24 advantage into the locker room. Lofton and Welch each hit three 3-pointers in the half.
Mason did little to take advantage of the Bonnies’ cold start, mustering only a 5-0 lead.
Welch’s first 3 gave Bona its first lead, 7-6, about 7 minutes into the game.
Welch’s second 3 capped a 23-6 run and put the Bonnies on top, 23-11, with about 8 minutes remaining in the first half. The 12-point lead was their largest of the frame.
They led by as many as 15 points in the second half.
Welch opened the second half with a 3 for a 37-24 lead, and the Bonnies maintained a double-digit advantage for much of the rest of the game.
"It was very nice," Lofton said about Welch's performance. "I knew he was capable of doing it, because in prep school I played against him a couple of times, and I just know what type of player he is. So it’s good that he (brought) it out."
St. Bonaventure and George Mason had split the regular season series. Mason defeated Bona, 68-53, on Jan. 6 in the A-10 opener in Fairfax, Va., dropping the Bonnies' record to 4-10.
But the Bonnies went 12-5 to finish the regular season, including a 79-56 victory over Mason on Feb. 17 at the Reilly Center. Bona surged to a 16-0 lead in the rematch, the Bonnies' second victory in what became a season-long six-game winning streak. That was gave Schmidt his 203rd victory at the school, allowing him to surpass Larry Weise as the program’s all-time wins leader.
St. Bonaventure received an at-large bid into last season’s NCAA Tournament, the school’s seventh appearance in program history and the second under Schmidt.
The first was in 2012, the last time the Bonnies won the conference tournament.
"Our guys really did a good job of persevering," Schmidt said. "They blocked out the noise when everybody said that we stunk. And they just kept on working. We got healthy, we got some chemistry, and the freshmen got a lot of confidence and we just started playing."