NEW YORK – The Bonnies were so close to dancing, once again.
But their magical late-season run ended in frustration.
St. Bonaventure raced to an early 15-point lead but managed just 19 points in the second half as Saint Louis rallied and hung on for a 55-53 victory in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship game Sunday, sucking the wind out of thousands of Bonnies fans at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The Billikens’ first A-10 tournament title since 2013 grants an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bonnies were looking for their second trip to the NCAA Tournament in as many years, and they had their chances despite trailing by eight points with 3:45 to play.
Bona missed three shots in the final 31 seconds, including a potential game-winning 3-pointer from the corner by senior reserve guard Nelson Kaputo with 3 seconds remaining. Kaputo didn’t sub into the game until all-conference senior swingman Courtney Stockard fouled out with 55 seconds to play.
“If that goes in, we win,” St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said. “He’s hit shots in his career, and you know, it’s hard. He came off the bench. He didn’t play for two hours, and for him to come up and try to make that shot, it’s hard. And I know he’s disappointed, but at the end of the game, you can’t really choose who is going to take that last shot.”
Stockard, who scored a game-high 22 points on 7 of 12 shooting, including a 6 for 9 performance from long range, hit his final 3-pointer to pull Bona within two points with 56 seconds remaining, but fouled out a moment later, putting A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Javon Bess on the line.
Bess missed the free throw, Bona freshman center Osun Osunniyi collected the rebound, and freshman point guard Kyle Lofton – later named to the all-tournament team – advanced the ball past halfcourt. The Bonnies used a timeout to discuss the plan of attack. There were 45 seconds to play.
Freshman guard Dominick Welch missed a 3-pointer and Lofton couldn’t get a layup to fall with 16 seconds remaining, before Kaputo’s miss and the ensuing rebound by Saint Louis’ Fred Thatch Jr. sealed the defeat.
“I think the basketball gods were with us,” said Saint Louis guard Tramaine Isabell Jr., after being named the tournament’s most outstanding player. “They got about three open looks. You don’t really want to live like that, but I mean, sometimes it’s basketball. I’m just happy all of them rimmed out.”
Jordan Goodwin led Saint Louis with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Bess had 11 points and eight boards. Isabell scored nine points.
St. Bonaventure senior forward LaDarien Griffin recorded a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds, but was held scoreless in the second half despite playing all 20 minutes.
Lofton had six points on 2 of 14 shooting and a team-high four assists.
No other Bonnies player scored more than four points.
Bona shot just 26.1 percent (6-for-23) in the second half.
“They took away some of our actions, made us catch the ball further out and just made it tough on us,” Griffin said. “We missed a lot of shots in the second half. We weren’t getting to the free throw line enough. And we didn’t get enough stops at the end.”
Stockard, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing two seasons because of injuries, sat quietly at his locker after the game.
“My mom, she’s a big Christian,” Stockard said. “She was heavy into church and she had me in it growing up, and all while I was growing up, she continued to harp on how everything happens for a reason. And any tough battle, God gives it to his strongest soldiers, and that’s what I think I’m a prime example of.”
St. Bonaventure (18-16), which made its seventh NCAA Tournament appearance in program history with an at-large bid a year ago, has never reach the field in consecutive seasons.
The fourth-seeded Bonnies needed to win the A-10 Tournament title to qualify this year, and they had an opportunity to accomplish that goal without facing the conference’s top three seeds, regular-season champ VCU, Davidson and Dayton.
Bona defeated No. 5 George Mason and No. 8 Rhode Island to set up the title game match-up with No. 6 Saint Louis (22-12).
The Bonnies last reached the A-10 championship game in 2012, when they defeated Xavier, 67-56, to win their first and only A-10 tournament title. Bona lost to Temple in 2000 and West Virginia in 1984, giving it a 1-3 record in the title game.
This season, St. Bonaventure lost 10 of its first 14 games, attributable to injuries and youth, but had been on a tear since January.
The Bonnies had won nine of their previous 10 games, including a 66-57 victory against Saint Louis in the regular-season finale on March 9 at the Reilly Center, the teams' only previous meeting this season.
It appeared they’d have their way in the rematch, with the Billikens floundering and playing their fourth game in four days.
Saint Louis missed its first 11 shots, allowing St. Bonaventure to race to a 16-4 lead.
And while the Billikens chopped their deficit to five, at 24-19 with 5½ minutes left in the first half, the Bonnies responded with a 10-0 run, highlighted by Stockard drilling back-to-back 3-pointers and Griffin hitting a jumper for 34-19 lead, the 15-point advantage their largest of the game.
Osunniyi, who picked up his third foul late in the half, was forced to sit as the Billikens clawed to within 34-25 at halftime.
Saint Louis coach Travis Ford abandoned the 1-3-1 defense that proved so effective a day earlier in a 67-44 semifinal victory against No. 2 Davidson – the Bonnies were ready for it – before landing on an effective approach.
“We started out changing defenses and none of them were working, except for our man-to-man, and so we just stuck with that,” Ford said.
The Bonnies were stymied.
Even though they held the Billikens to 55 points, 37.3 percent shooting overall, 18.2 percent from 3-point range, and outrebounded them by three, putting the ball through the hoop became a monumental problem.
“We couldn’t score,” Schmidt said. “Give Saint Louis credit. They did a really good job of taking away some of our actions and making it a one-on-one game, and we don’t have one-on-one-type players.”
The teams combined to miss 10 consecutive second-half shots until a seven-point run by Saint Louis, which hacked the Bonnies’ lead to 41-40 with 11 minutes to play.
Bona was held scoreless for nearly six minutes until Stockard hit another 3-pointer, his fifth of the game, to snap the drought and give the Bonnies a 44-40 edge.
Stockard then made a pair of free throws to put Bona on top, 46-42, with eight minutes to go.
But the Billikens scored the next 12 points.
Hasahn French’s layup gave Saint Louis its first lead since the opening moments of the game, up 47-46, with seven minutes to play. It never trailed again, pushing its advantage to eight points.
Stockard made a layup and then Osunniyi hit two free throws with 1:16 remaining to pull the Bonnies within 54-50.
Stockard’s sixth and final 3-pointer and subsequent foul set the stage for the frantic final minute.
“We were playing to win,” Schmidt said. “You know, with Courtney out, I thought if we went to overtime it would be difficult for us to win. So we were trying to win it, and we had three opportunities that we missed, but they were good shots, and sometimes they go in. It’s not because we don’t work at it. It’s just the way it goes. Some jump shots don’t go in.”