NEW YORK — Courtney Stockard was having one of the worst games of his career at the worst possible time.
St. Bonaventure was getting blasted, down 15 points late in the first half of its stunning 68-51 victory over Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament semifinals on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and the Bonnies’ all-conference senior forward was shooting nothing but blanks.
He missed 3-pointers. He missed short jumpers. He missed layups. Some didn’t even hit the rim.
But when freshman Kyle Lofton drilled a 3 to pull the Bonnies within 12, the point guard ran to the sideline to deliver a message to his slumping teammates, Stockard chief among them.
“It was actually the last media timeout in the first half, I told him, ‘This is not going to be the last game of the season,’ ” Lofton said. “And then from there, they just picked it up and got more aggressive. They understood what I meant.”
Fourth-seeded St. Bonaventure turned that 15-point deficit into a 21-point advantage with 2:35 remaining in the game, an incredible 36-point swing to dispatch No. 8 Rhode Island and catapult the Bonnies to a conference title game matchup against No. 6 Saint Louis on Sunday.
The winner will earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s always good when you can get your teammates to pick you up and kind of make plays for you, make it easier on you, and that’s exactly what they did,” Stockard said.
Stockard, who received a sixth season of eligibility after losing two seasons to injury, finished the game shooting just 1 of 11 from the field. He missed his first nine shots, including all seven in the first half and three from long range, before getting a jumper to fall for a 52-46 lead with 7:01 remaining in the game.
But he found other ways to contribute.
Stockard hit seven of eight free throws and finished with nine points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals while playing all 40 minutes.
“We beat Rhode Island, a heck of a team, by 17 and our best player goes 1 for 11. So it says a lot about the other guys on our team,” Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt said.
And as for what Stockard said to Lofton?
“I told him he’s right,” Stockard said. “You know? None of us were trying to have the season end today. We had one goal at the beginning of the year, and that’s to make it to the NCAA Tournament. That’s still the goal. And we’re one game away from making our dreams come true.”
Stockard, who said he was healthy, missed the first six games of the season while recovering from knee surgery, and with three freshmen receiving heavy minutes, it was largely up to him, once he returned, to try to keep Bona’s season from running off the rails.
The Bonnies staggered to a 4-10 record before going 14-5 down the stretch, a run that includes victories in nine of their last 10 games.
“Early in the year when I struggled, the team struggled,” Stockard said, “so it was kind of a lot of pressure on me to kind of be that leader and kind of carry the squad for us, but at the same time, Dom Welch, he’s been that X-factor for us, Kyle Lofton, he’s been a great leader, Osun (Osunniyi), he’s been huge on the defensive end, so we just need these guys going forward.”
Stockard wasn’t the only Bonnies player to struggle, but he is their best, and his scoring funk lasted the entirety of the game.
Fellow senior LaDarien Griffin shot 1 for 5 in the first half, but similarly found success from the foul line, hitting all seven of his shots from the stripe. He finished 3 for 9 from the field, contributing 13 points and six rebounds.
“Once you kind of see all the rest of your guys picking you up, like Dom and Kyle were picking us up in the first half, just to get it almost tied at halftime, it was a huge boost,” Griffin said. “Now, OK, let’s get going. Let’s get playing. Those guys just helped pick us up all the time.”
Osunniyi said it works both ways — the freshmen rely on the seniors, as well, as expected, especially because of their postseason experience. They were part of last year's team that received an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament and defeated UCLA in the First Four.
“We know that they’ve been here before,” Osunniyi said. “They’ve been to an NCAA Tournament, so we just tell them to keep their heads up, don’t get down on themselves, because when we don’t know what to do we lean on them to lead us, so we just tell them to keep their heads up and shots are going to fall. Things are going to happen.”
Stockard said he tried to keep his struggles in perspective.
“Everyone’s going to miss,” he said. “I’ve missed before. I’m going to miss again. With that being said, I’ve just got to keep my head and try to make plays for my team.”
With all Stockard has been through over the last six years, he’s motivated to do all he can to help the Bonnies win their first conference title since 2012.
“It’d be huge,” Stockard said. “One thing I’ve never done since I’ve been playing basketball is cut down a net. And if we get that win (Sunday), I’ll be able to do that, so that’s what I’m looking forward to.”