By Ryan Lazo
ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — Coming off of four straight losses of at least 19 points, St. Bonaventure looked to be a dead in the water as Virginia Commonwealth University traveled to the Reilly Center for their first Atlantic 10 Conference road game.
But the team that was similar to zombies in The Walking Dead
disappeared in favor of a Bona team that did not relent until the final whistle blew.
And when that final whistle blew, the Bonnies’ (7-8, 0-2) effort was not enough as No. 24 VCU held on for a 72-65 victory in front of 4,675 fans curious to see if Bona could take down a ranked team.
“Against VCU, you can’t take a step back, you can’t blink, you have to attack,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said after his team’s fifth straight loss. “There are no moral victories but our guys played hard and that’s the beginning. Hopefully we can build on it.”
Schmidt is right on part of his statement.
There are moral victories to be had. Let’s wander back to last season, the last time a ranked team visited to the Reilly Center.
While the Bonnies fell to the Temple Owls, the loss seemingly propelled them to an incredible run through the rest of the A-10 slate, culminating in the program’s first-ever A-10 Championship.
No one is proclaiming the same will happen to this year’s Bona squad, but they showed enough promise to stop the doomsday predictions floating around the program.
After allowing opponents to have a field day shooting the ball over the past four games, the Bonnies’ made VCU work on every possession to score. While the Rams finished the game by shooting 52 percent, Bona was able to guard the 3-point line effectively.
“We played a really hard fought game on Wednesday against Dayton and I felt like today, against St. Bonaventure, this one was even tougher,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said after the Bonnies’ forced 15 turnovers and held the Rams to just 29 percent from three. “They did a good job of coming at us and blew up some of the stuff we do on the offensive end.”
The aggressive nature of the Bonnies caught VCU off guard. Instead of playing tentatively, Bona attacked the famed havoc defense that averages 13 steals a game. And by the first media timeout, it was apparent Bona came to play.
“We feel like we finally found our heart,” Matthew Wright said after his 3-for-6 shooting for 10 points off the bench. “We got it back. We have to know that this is the bare minimum
we can play. We have to play hard no matter what.”
It was a strong statement from a Bona guard that was among the returning players from last year’s tournament winning team. The fact that this team had either grown complacent or just didn’t have the mental fortitude to fight through bad starts is a trend that needs to be reversed.
And it’s quite possible that facing a team of VCU’s caliber was the medicine this team needed.
“Every team in this league is good,” Schmidt said after the loss. “We got to play hard in order to give ourselves a chance to win it at the end.”
With 3:46 remaining in the game, Bona found itself trailing by the biggest deficit in the game — 13. But instead of falling over like they have recently, the Bonnies’ roared back with 3-pointers and turnovers, giving them a chance at the end.
One of the main reasons they had that chance was once again, the play of Demitrius Conger. He scored 19 points on 5-for-10 shooting, including 4-for-6 from 3-point range, while dishing out three assists.
But even more important was where those numbers placed him in program history. The Bonnies’ captain became just the third player in program history to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 200 assists in a career.
With a player like him leading the way, the Bonnies will always have a chance. And if they shoot 11-for-25 from 3-point range for 44 percent, they will be tough to beat.
While they were dominated in the paint by a 32 to 18 margin and killed on the offensive glass — allowing 11 boards for 16 second chance points, Bona never gave up.
It’s a point that did not go unnoticed by the Rams’ coach.
“I think St. Bonaventure is going to give a lot of teams trouble and they are going to win their share of games in this league,” the Final Four participating coach said.
And it’s true.
While Bona has played poorly of late, think back to the beginning of the season when the defense wasn’t being sliced like swiss cheese. Think back to those dramatic wins against Buffalo and Niagara.
The never-say-die spirit that emboldened last year’s team when they sat at just 2-3 on the season after losing to Arkansas State showed up again. It’s the same spirit they showed when they won eight of their last 10 games to make the NCAA Tournament.
“We always talk about playing each possession like it’s your last,” Schmidt said. “At times we may have given in a bit, but I can tell you we didn’t give in today.”
Bona gave VCU all it can handle by not giving in, but whether is was an aberration or a sign of things to come remains to be seen.
Ryan Lazo can be reached on Twitter @RMLazo13