CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Whenever taking a road trip to Virginia, one will notice signs along the interstate that read, “Virginia Is For Lovers.”
Virginians may love their state, but there is nothing like the love that St. Bonaventure students and alumni have for their basketball team.
Hence why these corny little highway signs serve as a perfect metaphor for St. Bonaventure’s next matchup in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
On Monday, Dominic Grecco, a senior at St. Bonaventure who is popularly known as “Captain Beer,” sent out a Tweet asking for some financial assistance. He needed some funding for an idea.
He wanted to organize a road trip for his class so that they could make the six-hour drive down to Virginia to see Bonaventure’s next game.
Within minutes, his Venmo account flooded with donations. Some were as large as $1000 while others were as little as $25. No matter the contribution, any little amount helped, as the Brown and White Cult turned his dream into a reality:
WOW THANK YOU!! I have bought 30 tickets for students to go. We will be taking 7 to 8 cars down to UVA. Everything from gas to hotel rooms and even some food money will be paid for all of the cars!! The Bona Alum and fan base are special thank you everyone! https://t.co/SOTT0xGUtc
— Dominic Grecco (@dom_grecco) March 21, 2022
A pretty cool story for the smallest school remaining in the NIT field.
So on Tuesday night, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies (22-9, 12-5 Conference) will take on the Virginia Cavaliers (21-13, 12-8 Conference) at John Paul Jones Arena in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m. EST and the game will air on ESPN. The winner heads to the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden next week in New York City.
“We are just happy to play wherever they tell us to go, whether it be Colorado, Oklahoma, Virginia or in the RC,” Mark Schmidt, the St. Bonaventure coach, told the media on Monday. “Our guys are happy to be playing Virginia. We know it is going to be a tough game. They are in the ACC and well-coached. But we are just looking forward to the challenge.”
Fresh off a victory in Oklahoma, the Bonnies will face their third straight Power Five opponent in Virginia. The Cavaliers finished sixth in the ACC this season and missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
Virginia has had a great run over the last decade or so under coach Tony Bennett. The Cavaliers won the national championship just three years ago, as they defeated Texas Tech in overtime to secure the title.
Despite missing the 2022 NCAA Tournament, this Virginia team is no slouch. The Cavaliers defeated Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium back in early February and throttled the Providence Friars back in November. Both of those teams are playing in the Sweet Sixteen later this week.
But a major reason as to why this Virginia team did not return to the Big Dance is because of their three-point shooting, or lack thereof.
In 2019, when Virginia cut down the nets, the Cavaliers drained 39.5% of their attempts from beyond the arc. That mark ranked fifth in the country.
Last season, when UVA made the tournament as a 5-seed, they shot 37.5% from three-point range, good for 24th nationally.
This year’s Cavalier team ranks 238th nationally in three-point shooting, making just 32.5% from deep. They also play at the slowest pace in Division I and do not attempt as many threes as in years past. Virginia loves to grind games out, play tough defensively, and keep the final scores of games in the low 60s. They run a complicated motion offense–much like the Bonnies–and prioritize getting the ball in the paint.
Jayden Gardner, a 6-foot-6 forward from Wake Forest, North Carolina, leads Virginia in scoring, averaging 15.4 points per game (PPG). He’s a do-it-all type of player, as he also leads the team in rebounding, corralling 6.4 boards per game.
Reece Beekman, Kihei Clark, and Armaan Franklin are the main trio of guards that help run Bennett’s offense.
Beekman, a 6-foot-2 sophomore from Baton Rouge, Lousiana, averages 8.3 PPG and makes 34.4% of his three-point attempts. In the first two rounds of the NIT, against Mississippi State and North Texas, Beekman finished with 14 and 13 points, respectively.
Clark is one of the few holdovers from Virginia’s national title run. The 5-foot-10 senior from Woodland Hills, California averages 10.2 PPG and leads the team in assists.
Then there’s Franklin, who averages 11.0 PPG. He’s a 6-foot-4 junior from Indianapolis.
Inside, the Cavaliers have a great rim protector in Kadin Shedrick, a 6-foot-11 sophomore from Holly Springs, North Carolina. Shedrick averages 6.9 PPG, grabs five rebounds per game, and records just under two blocks a game.
He will likely match up against St. Bonaventure’s Osun Osunniyi, who played a major role in Sunday’s victory over Oklahoma. Osunniyi, who stands at 6-foot-10 and has a 7-foot-8 wingspan, scored 14 points and grabbed ten rebounds, thus recording his second consecutive double-double.
But no other Bonnie had a bigger impact on the game against Oklahoma than Jaren Holmes.
Coming into Sunday’s game, Holmes was in a funk. He had struggled with his outside shot for most of the year, converting on just 25% of attempts from beyond the arc.
Holmes cast all doubts aside with his 23 point performance against the Sooners. The Romulus, Michigan native drained all four of his three-point tries too.
“Jump shooting is all confidence,” Schmidt said when asked about Holmes. “He has a great stroke, and once you see one go in, then the basket starts to get bigger. When they don’t go in, the basket shrinks. He made his first the other night and had a great game. Shooting is all confidence. When things aren’t going well, and the ball is not going in, you always question yourself. But the thing with Jaren is that he kept on working, kept on shooting, and kept on being aggressive. When you work at it, good things happen, and that’s what has happened with him.”
Holmes put in the work and it finally paid off in the Sooner state. Without him, the Bonnies likely would have lost.
But as in any game, the Bonnies will need all five starters to step up, especially against Virginia.
“It’s about five guys working together and keeping the ball in front of you and contesting jump shots,” Schmidt added. “The team that does that the best will win the game.”
The NCAA and the NIT handed the Bonnies a box of lemons on Selection Sunday.
No other team in America has had to travel as much as the Bonnies have had to over the past eight days. Bona went out to Boulder, Colorado, then back to Olean, New York. Then they had to travel to the Great Plains of Oklahoma, and are now in Charlottesville, Virginia preparing for the quarterfinals.
SBU-TV Sports received this statement from the NCAA on why the Bonnies will be traveling to Charlottesville, VA for their NIT quarterfinal game.
— SBU-TV Sports (@sbutvsports) March 21, 2022
All of this travel would make most feel fatigued and grumpy. And many thought that the Bonnies would host this game. But the NCAA had no other choice but to dance in Power Five money.
Despite all of these obstacles, or lemons, the Bonnies are keeping their foot on the gas pedal.
“I think they are excited to play,” Schmidt said when I asked him about his team’s travels. “If you lose, you go home. I don’t think fatigue [and travel] is going to have anything to do with it. These kids are ready to play and they are healthy. Hopefully, we can play well.”
This attitude, coupled with the fact that St. Bonaventure fans and alumni supported the student body financially, only demonstrates the fact that the entire Bonaventure community turned some sour lemons into some tasty lemonade.
To add to that, the Bonnies are hot. They have been shooting the ball well, having made 20-of-39 from beyond the arc in the NIT alone. The Brown and White are shooting the ball as they did in Charleston.
And I think that hot shooting continues in Charlottesville. I like the Bonnies to win in a slow, grind-it-out, type of game as Bona will advance to the Big Apple next week for the NIT Final Four.
St. Bonaventure 57, Virginia 54
Jack Milko received his B.A. in Political Science from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is now working to get his M.A. in Sports Journalism from St. Bonaventure University. A lifelong fan of the Bonnies, Jack covers the team for @A10Talk. Follow him on Twitter for more Bonnies coverage at @Jack_Milko.
Featured image courtesy of Dan Nelligan, St. Bonaventure Class of 2020, who serves as a photographer for @A10Talk.