ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. – Being the smallest school in the Atlantic 10, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies (16-7, 8-4 Conference) certainly play the role of being a “small-town girl.” And outsiders may look at this little place, tucked away in the Enchanted Mountains of Western New York, as being in a “lonely world.” But these Bonnies, after hitting a mid-season funk, have begun to hit their stride as they have now won four in a row. Don’t stop believing, folks. This season is far from over.
The chase for a double-bye at the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Washington, D.C. continues on Saturday as the Bonnies host the Duquesne Dukes (6-18, 1-11 Conference) as a part of 80’s Alumni Weekend.
Tip-off at the Reilly Center is slated for 6 p.m. and the game will air on ESPNU.
Currently, the Dukes find themselves at the bottom of the conference standings.
On the flip side, the Bonnies are soaring.
Nonetheless, this is still a vital game for the Bonnies.
“[Our guys] know how important this game is,” said Mark Schmidt, who is the reigning Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year. “We know how talented Duquesne is. [The Dukes] are young, but talented. When they are hitting shots, they are really good. We had a tough game down at Duquesne a month or so ago. But we cannot overlook anybody. The Atlantic 10 is a good league and anybody can beat anybody. Our guys understand that. We take them as seriously as anybody else.”
The Bonnies and the Dukes squared off in Pittsburgh back on Jan. 21. Bona prevailed 64-to-56.
Since then, Duquesne has not won a single game. Their last victory came at UMass on Jan. 8.
Despite their struggles, the Dukes still pose a threat. They have young talent. Schmidt even referred to them as “scary.”
Amir Spears, who Schmidt labeled as the “catalyst” for this team, stands at 6-foot-3 and leads the team in scoring, averaging 11.8 points per game (PPG). He scored 20 in Monday’s loss at Davidson and followed that up by scoring 15 points in the loss to George Washington on Wednesday.
“Spears has the ball in his hands a lot,” Schmidt noted. “He can really score.”
Alongside Spears in the backcourt is Leon Ayers III, a 6-foot-5 guard from Troy, Michigan, who averages 10.5 PPG. Despite averaging double-digits, Ayers has eclipsed the ten-point mark just once over his past five games. He struggled against the Bonnies too, as he went 4-of-20 from the field on that Friday night in Pittsburgh.
“They have good players and good pieces, but they are struggling shooting the ball at times,” Schmidt remarked. “But when they are shooting, they are good. They played Davidson tough. They played VCU tough. They are young, so they have their ups and downs but they have really good players.”
Meanwhile, Bona has won four in a row and is now back in the conversation for both an Atlantic 10 title and an NCAA Tournament berth.
A big reason for that has been the play of Osun Osunniyi.
“He’s always a factor,” Schmidt said when asked about Osunniyi. “When we can go inside and he’s active, he can score. He’s active on the offensive glass. He’s active blocking shots. We are that much better on both ends. He’s played well in the last four-to-five games and that’s one of the reasons why we are playing better as a team. He’s a presence defensively. He’s doing what a big-guy needs to do to help us win games.”
In the first meeting between these two teams, Osunniyi was the dominant force. He scored 21 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. Oh, and he blocked away six shots.
Over his past five games, Osunniyi has averaged 14.8 PPG. He has been as important to this team as anyone, on both sides of the ball.
Teams have struggled to score against the Bonnies as of late as Bona has forced turnovers at an alarming rate. Over the past four games, Bona has forced 64 turnovers while committing just 31 turnovers themselves. That’s a big reason why this team is riding a four-game winning streak as forcing turnovers leads to easy points in transition.
But Osunniyi has not been the only contributor during this streak.
Kyle Lofton, Dom Welch, Jaren Holmes, and Jalen Adaway have all elevated their play. Karim Abdul Coulibaly and Quadry Adams have contributed off the bench as well.
In Wednesday’s victory over UMASS, Lofton scored 11 points and dished out a program record of 17 assists. He was nothing short of amazing.
But Welch may have topped that performance.
The Cheektowaga, New York native scored a game-high 23 points, grabbed ten rebounds, and shot an incredible 7-of-9 from beyond the arc. The Bonnies have struggled shooting the long ball this year, but Welch certainly did not last time out.
Over his past four games, Welch has averaged 18.0 PPG and has made 16-of-31 from three-point range. The 6-foot-5 senior has been on fire. Considering Duquesne struggles against defending the three, watch out for Welch to have another big game. The Dukes have allowed their opponents to make 38.5% of their three-point attempts, which ranks 349th in the country, per KenPom.
As a team, the Bonnies have done a solid job in limiting turnovers and attacking the paint over the past week or so.
But they have found themselves in foul trouble at times.
And that has been a blessing in disguise.
In the second half against UMass, Osunniyi picked up his third foul of the game less than three minutes into the second half. Schmidt had no choice but to send him to the bench.
Coulibaly came in for Osunniyi and played seven-to-eight solid minutes. He had a couple of great moves on the low block and finished with six points. Perhaps most importantly, Osunniyi got some much-needed rest.
This season, the Bonnies rank in the top 10 in the least amount of fouls committed nationally. That’s an impressive statistic, but why not play a little more aggressively on defense? Why not pick up a foul here or there? Sometimes, a hard foul may scare off the opposing team from driving inside. And once that team gets inside, they have to try and navigate their shot around Osunniyi, who is closing in on the St. Bonaventure all-time blocks record. He only needs 12 more blocks to surpass Caswell Cyrus, who holds the record with 289.
With all of this in mind, the Bonnies still need to come out and play hard against Duquense on Saturday.
“We have got to do everything better,” Schmidt said when asked about how this matchup against the Dukes compared to the last one. “We have to execute better on offense. We have to shoot the ball better than we did down there. We have to keep them out of the paint, they got there too easily last time. They had 19 offensive rebounds. There were a lot of negatives. And we have to play that much better if we are going to win [Saturday.] Rebounding is always important. But also keeping them out of the paint, contesting three-pointers, making some shots, and taking care of the basketball are all keys to winning.”
It is no secret that Duquense Coach Keith Dambrot is on the hot seat. It is also no secret that the Duquesne Dukes is one of the worst teams in the Atlantic 10.
The Bonnies are the better team by far. They have completely turned things around, playing like the defending champions as everyone expected.
In front of a sold-out Reilly Center crowd, on 80’s Alumni Weekend no less, I like the Bonnies to roll big.
St. Bonaventure 85, Duquense 67
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.