Atlantic 10 Season in Review – Fantastic Stretch Run
On January, 19, 2018, I was in Montreal, Quebec visiting some friends for the weekend. I cleared my schedule to make sure that I could watch St. Bonaventure versus Davidson on my laptop. Only one other person in Quebec cared about this game other than myself, and that was my buddy who traveled with me to Montreal. He played with Davidson’s freshman Kellan Grady in high school at Catholic Memorial in Boston. The game was on ESPN2, the first time both teams had been featured on the ESPN’s Friday Night Atlantic-10 package. Davidson shot the lights out, per usual, and the Wildcats triumphed the Bonnies by a score of 83-73. Davidson shot over 50% from the field and Peyton Aldridge had 25 points. On the other side for the Brown and White, Mobley chipped in 25, but it was not enough. I remember sitting there, in the French city north of the border, thinking to myself, “the only way this league gets more than one at-large bid is if Bonaventure beats Rhode Island in the final of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.” I also thought: “Well, Bonaventure has also lost four of five and were just blown out by URI last week 87-73.” So, I shrugged my shoulders and decided that Rhode Island, with their 6-0 start in league play at the time, and five of six of those wins by double digits, would end up winning the Atlantic 10 Regular Season Title and Tournament and they would be the only team representing this weak conference in the NCAA’s.
I could not have been more wrong.
Five nights later, Bonaventure pulled out a gutsy 70-67 win over St. Joseph’s. Phil Martelli is one of the best coaches in the country and his depleted squad gave the Bonnies all they had in Olean. This marked the beginning of a 13-game winning streak for SBU.
For Davidson, they traveled to Dayton and lost a heart-breaker to the Flyers. In a back-and-forth slug-fest, the Flyers topped the Wildcats 65-64. Davidson dropped to 10-8 and 5-2 in the conference. The Wildcats, after beating Bonaventure by double digits the Friday before, felt crushed. Some fans felt that Davidson’s season was over, including myself. The ‘Cats had played primarily good ball throughout the season but sustained some bad losses to Appalachian State and Richmond. They played North Carolina tough and lost by 10. The Nevada Wolfpack, who made it to this year’s Sweet Sixteen, beat Davidson by 13 back in November; the game was closer than the score indicated. Then three nights after the loss in Dayton, Bob McKillop’s squad lost to Richmond again at home. Season over, right?
But… the basketball gods had a plan for the Atlantic 10.
After Davidson’s home loss to Richmond on January 28, the Wildcats dropped to 10-9 and 5-3 in conference play. From this point forward, Davidson would go on to lose only two more games for the remainder of the regular season. One of those was on Friday, February 9; another ESPN2 game for Davidson: a 72-59 decision at the hands of the Rams in Kingston, RI.
The other game… the other game was no doubt the game of the year in all of college basketball; a Tuesday night showdown between Davidson and St. Bonaventure in one of the greatest atmospheres in the country: The Reilly Center in Olean, NY. Coming in to this game, Davidson was finally starting to play well, riding a four game winning streak. The Bonnies were also riding very high: they had won ten games in a row and had received votes in the AP Top 25 Poll. During that stretch, Bona became the first Atlantic 10 team to defeat Rhode Island in front of a sold-out Reilly Center on February 16 by a score of 77-74. Thus, the stage was set for the best game of the year. The Bona faithful was loud and raucous throughout the entire game, but that did not stop Peyton Aldridge or Kellan Grady. Aldridge was an absurd 8-11 from long range and finished with 45. Grady chipped in 39 of his own. You would think that would have been enough for Davidson to get the win in the snowy gallows of Southwestern New York. It was not. The final score was St. Bonaventure 117, Davidson 113. For the Brown and White, Jay Adams had 34, Matt Mobley had 33, and Courtney Stockard had 31. These two teams needed an extra fifteen minutes to settle things. Both teams shot exactly 40% from long range and both teams shot around 45% from the entire field. The statistics really showed how close this game was. Aldridge and Adams both fouled out in the later stages of the overtimes, so both sides had to rely on their depth. Nonetheless, the play of the night came from the one guy that everyone least expected: Tshiefu Ngalakulondi. His emphatic dunk off of an inbound play midway through the third overtime brought the Riley Center to its feet and put the Bonnies up for good. Even though St. Bonaventure won, Davidson did not feel too disheartened. The Wildcats knew they gave it their all. The amazing part about this game was how everyone loved watching it. Threes were pouring in from everywhere and the atmosphere was phenomenal. Even national sportswriters and SportsCenter anchors tweeted that this Bona-Davidson game was unbelievable.
What about Saint Joseph’s? Well, two hours before the triple overtime classic in Olean, Saint Joseph’s trekked up to Kingston and harassed the nationally ranked Rams on their home floor on senior night. The final score was 78-48. Martelli’s squad shot 61% from deep while the Rams shot 10%. This game was not even close. The Hawks had put the rest of the conference on notice… and it also gave other teams, specifically Bona and Davidson, the opportunity to realize that Rhode Island was not going to run away with the conference title.
The Final Weekend opened with Davidson hosting Rhode Island to cap off ESPN’s Friday Night Atlantic-10 Package. Davidson, after playing so well against the Bonnies three nights earlier, found themselves tied with the nationally ranked Rams with 6.8 seconds left. Not Peyton Aldridge, not Kellan Grady, but Jon Axel Gudmundsson hit the game winning layup with three seconds to go! Davidson would not end up playing back-to-back overtime games… instead they won 63-61! I was sitting in my hotel, in Manchester, England, at 2:15am, with the same buddy who played with Kellan Grady in high school, watching this terrific finish.
The next night, St. Bonaventure played St. Louis at the Chaifetz Center. Bona had won 11 games in a row and this game had trap game written all over it. Again, I stayed up until 3am in England to watch this game on my laptop. The Bonnies had a six-point lead at halftime, 31-25. Most Bonaventure fans felt that if Bona were to lose this game, they would end up on the wrong side of the bubble and not make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. As Mark Schmidt said continually down the stretch: “every game we play is a Game 7.” That idea certainly applied to this game in St. Louis. With just over two minutes to play, the Bills had cut the Bonaventure lead to 55-52. Thankfully for the Brown & White, Jay Adams scored seven of his 12 points in the final two minutes of play to help lead the Bonnies to their 24th victory of the season. The Bonnies, along with the rest of the Atlantic 10, felt that they were in. SBU, at the time, had an RPI of 21, a 24-6 record, and non-conference victories over Maryland, Buffalo, Vermont, and Syracuse. The Committee had to have them in right? The snub of 2016 was bad, but if they were to get snubbed this year… it would be considered a highway robbery.
A week later in the nation’s capital, Rhode Island took care of VCU in their opening round game by a score of 76-67. Bonaventure got the Richmond Spiders, a team that started the season 2-11 but had a nice bounce back during conference play. As I mentioned earlier, the Spiders got the best of Davidson twice; they are not to be looked over. Well, the Bonnies got all they could handle in the first half. The score was tied 32 to 32 at halftime. Needless to say, the Brown and White cult were chopping their fingernails off in anxiety at this point. Then Matt Mobley. A firehouse could not have cooled down the Worcester, MA native in the second half. He just simply did not miss from deep. In the blink of an eye, the Bonnies found themselves up 17 with 11 minutes to play. However, basketball is a game of runs. Shots began to bounce out for the Bonnies and bounce in for the Spiders. All of the sudden, with 1:21 left to play, Richmond had sliced the lead to 2: 78 to 76. Going back to what Coach Schmidt said repeatedly: “Game 7.” In the final 81 seconds, the Bonnies stepped it up a notch and secured the win 83-77. SBU sealed the deal by defending well and knocking down their free throws. The final game of the evening featured Davidson and Saint Louis. The Wildcats dominated the entire game from start to finish, and the final score was 78-60. Peyton Aldridge was 6-6 from deep and had 35 points. The Atlantic 10 Semifinals were set: #4 Saint Joseph’s, who took care of George Mason with ease earlier in the day, had to take on #1 Rhode Island. This game would be a rematch of the 30-point drubbing that St. Joe’s put on URI a week-and-a-half earlier. The other game was a rematch of the triple overtime classic: #3 Davidson vs #2 St. Bonaventure.
Both games did not disappoint.
The first game, probably the better of the two, saw St. Joseph’s race out to a 47-40 halftime lead. Could St. Joe’s really beat URI, again!? Could they make a Cinderella run through the Atlantic 10 tournament and make the Big Dance? At this point, it sure looked like they could. The Hawks had the lead for the entire game until Fatts Russel hit a three with five and a half minutes to play to put URI up 76-73. The Rams never lost the lead from that point forward and ended up winning the game 90-87. Rhode Island, as pretty much everyone in the country had predicted, would be in the Atlantic 10 Tournament final. Now, they just had to await the victor of St. Bonaventure and Davidson.
The hype for the second semifinal game was really high: it was a rematch of two very evenly matched teams. However, Davidson was clearly the better team on this Saturday afternoon in Washington, DC. The Wildcats did not miss. They ended up making 16 three-pointers for the game. As soon as the Bonnies got close, either Aldridge or Grady would hit a dagger of a shot to keep the Wildcat lead secure. In the end, the final score read 82-70. Davidson, after starting 10-9, was one game away from dancing in the NCAA Tournament. Standing in their way of an NCAA-tournament bid: the Rhode Island Rams.
The Atlantic-10 Conference final turned out to be one of the best games of the year. Neither team did not want to let the other team win. For older sports fans, it felt like the Thrilla in Manilla: Ali vs Frazier; a pair of heavyweights slugging each other in the boxing ring. Really, the only difference was that the boxing ring happened to be Capital One Arena. A punch from Davidson, then a surge from Rhode Island; it was a tremendous back-and-forth game. Grady would hit a three, Fatts Russell would answer. Aldridge would execute a beautiful little post move, Andre Berry would replicate it on the other end. Midway through the second half, Davidson began to pull away from Rhode Island. After Aldridge made two free throws with just over ten minutes to play, Davidson found themselves up 49-41. Could the Wildcats do it!? Could the Atlantic-10 be a three-bid league!? Going back to my boxing reference, this showdown was not ending in the tenth round; it was going to go all fifteen. The basketball gods, and basketball fans alike, would not want to have it any other way. Davidson saw their eight-point lead evaporate after Rhode Island delivered punch after punch in retaliation. With 3 minutes and change left to play, Rhode Island had a four-point lead: 56-52. A 15-3 run by the Rams felt like a knockout punch. The Wildcats were backed into the corner, getting absolutely rocked by Jarred Terrell, E.C. Matthews, and company. It seemed as if the dream would come up just short. But the basketball gods had a plan… and it all evolved around Kellan Grady. The freshman hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 57-56 with 1:49 to play. On the ensuing possession, Jon Axel Gudmundsson picked up a steal. Davidson had a chance to take the lead. Then, with 1:12 to play, Kellan Grady, the young talent from Boston, hit a jumper to give his team the lead. Davidson had bounced back with a punch of their own… and it was the freshman who delivered it for the Wildcats. On the final possession of the game, Davidson still had the lead 58-57. With 11 seconds to play, Rhode Island had the ball. Coming out of a timeout, Dan Hurley called a play for his senior, E.C. Matthews. He would take the last shot. Defending him: Kellan Grady. Matthews dribbled around for a few seconds and then made his move, his step back three-pointer proved to be no good! Grady shut him down! What an ending! Davidson wins! A freshman hero! The Wildcats are going to the NCAA Tournament!
Three hours later, the Selection Sunday Telecast, which was absolutely pitiful to watch, announced that Rhode Island had drawn Trey Young and Oklahoma; the Bonnies would head to Dayton to play UCLA in the First Four; and Davidson would play the big, bad, blue-blood: Kentucky. The Atlantic 10 had three teams in the NCAA Tournament. The same amount of teams as the PAC-12 Conference.
The last two months of the Atlantic 10 basketball season proved that college basketball is the best. We all got to experience the raw emotion of watching tremendous basketball from three very good basketball teams. Hopefully, the 2019 Atlantic 10 season is just as good as this one was.
Statistics courtesy of ESPN