By Ryan Lazo
ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — If there was any chance for St. Bonaventure to break out of their worst funk in six years, this was the time.
A rematch of last year’s Atlantic 10 Championship game against a Xavier team that was not quite itself and was dealt a blow by having to play without Dee Davis.
And for a moment, it seemed the Bonnies would once again be able to topple perennial A-10 power Xavier when two free throws by Chris Johnson gave Bona a five-point lead with just 4:40 remaining.
But, even though the players have changed, one thing never does for Xavier — their heart. Across their chest is the name of a school that has reached seven straight NCAA Tournaments and reached the Sweet 16 in four of the last five seasons.
In other words, they have the heart of a champion.
And those Musketeers attacked St. Bonaventure with everything they had and left the Reilly Center with a come-from-behind 66-64 victory, a loss that leaves Bona gasping for air.
“There’s no embarrassment in losing that game,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said solemnly. “It’s just frustrating to be so close and not being able to make the plays at the end.”
But not making the plays at the end is becoming an alarming trend for St. Bonaventure (7-9, 0-3).
Earlier this season, Bona held a seven-point lead with seven minutes to go at Canisius and ended up losing the game on a missed final shot. The same happened at Arkansas State where Bona held a late lead to watch it evaporate in a matter of seconds.
Just one additional play made and this Bonnies season would have an entirely different vibe to it. But instead, players are left to shake their heads at what’s quickly becoming a frustrating season.
“It’s another loss. It’s another close one,” Johnson said following the loss to Xavier (10-6, 3-0). “It’s the same feeling at Canisius where we had the game at hand only to not execute down the stretch. We have to learn how to close out games.”
But if they haven’t learned yet, when will they learn?
Three games into the Atlantic 10 schedule and Bona is in the basement, looking up at a league that is a lot stronger than last season.
“Anytime you can win on the road, in this conference, it’s special,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said after his team’s win. “It’s not easy to do.”
Mack’s right about that.
From the top of the Atlantic 10 all the way to the bottom, any team can beat you. And that fact makes the rest of the season a daunting task for this Bonnies team.
While no one expected Bona to be a heavy weight once again, it also wasn’t expected to see the defending A-10 Champions taking such a precipitous fall.
Talent is all over the roster and in the past two games — two tough losses to VCU and Xavier — it’s easy for everyone to see.
“I think we’re getting better,” Schmidt said of his team on a six-game losing streak. “We got to learn how to win. We have to put ourselves in a situation where we can pull out a close game in the Atlantic 10.”
And slowly, but surely this Bona team is taking the steps to do just that.
Much like Xavier earlier this season when they lost four out five, this Bonnies squad is learning how to gel. Different players in unfamiliar roles has them learning the ABCs all over again, but they are starting to recite it.
Demitrius Conger is always a constant in the Bona offense as he tallied 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Meanwhile, Eric Mosley always graces the scoresheet with his 3-point prowess as he finished with 13 points.
But the man in the middle made the biggest impact of all.
In a span of 13 seconds, Ndoye made sure no Xavier player would drive down the lane without looking at his rear-view mirror after two emphatic rejections brought the Reilly Center crowd to life.
“Coach told me I needed to contest shots, not to let them lay the ball up every time,” Ndoye said of his mindset. “So I kinda just wanted to be more aggressive on the defensive end.”
But the 6-foot-11 sophomore also was aggressive on offense.
Ndoye set a career-high with 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting, using a hook-shot that Nicholson patented during his time in the Brown and White.
The Senegal native paced a Bona offense that shot 52.3 percent from the field, becoming just the third team to shoot over 50 percent against Xavier this year.
“He’s young, he’s still learning,” Schmidt said. “It’s still a process. He’s going to be a good player. He has a lot of room to improve, so that’s a positive.”
While Schmidt was discussing Ndoye, he might as well have said the same thing about his Bona squad.
They have talent and have proven they can compete against the top-tier teams in the A-10, but the question becomes how quickly can they change the word from compete to defeat.
For their season’s sake, it has to be sooner rather than later.
Ryan Lazo can be reached on Twitter @RMLazo13