WASHINGTON – St. Bonaventure Coach Mark Schmidt said that he divides up the season into three parts: the non-conference slate, conference play, and then the postseason. Well, it’s officially the second week of March and that means that the postseason has arrived for the Bonnies.
Kyle Lofton, Dom Welch, and Osun Osunniyi have a career record of 5-1 in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. In 2019, as a #4 seed, this trio led Bona to the finals, but they lost by two in a heartbreaker to St. Louis. In 2021, as the #1 seed, Lofton, Welch, and Osunniyi, along with Jaren Holmes and Jalen Adaway, dominated the Atlantic 10 Tournament and won the Championship for the second time in school history.
The “Iron-Man Five” are looking to repeat as champions in 2022.
But a team cannot win the whole tournament unless they win the first game.
“We just have to take it one game at a time and play to win,” Schmidt said when asked about the postseason on Wednesday afternoon. “We are looking at it as that we have to take care of business at 2:30 p.m. on Friday. That’s all we are thinking about.”
For the third time this season, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies (20-8, 12-5 Conf.) will play the St. Louis Billikens (22-10, 12-6 Conf.) on Friday. Bona won both games earlier, but those victories are meaningless now. This third matchup is for all the marbles.
The winner advances to the Atlantic 10 Semifinals.
The loser goes home.
Thanks to their victory over Richmond last Friday, Bonaventure earned the #4 seed in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, thus securing a double-bye straight to the Quarterfinals. Meanwhile, St. Louis, who finished a half-game behind Bona in the standings, finished fifth in the conference.
The Billikens throttled the 12th-seeded La Salle Explorers on Thursday afternoon, winning 71-to-51. Gibson Jimmerson finished with a game-high 19 points and converted on three of his eight attempts from beyond the arc.
St. Louis is playing with a chip on their shoulder. Not only did they get swept by the Bonnies in the regular season, but the Billikens also lost to Bona in the 2021 Atlantic 10 Semifinals.
St. Louis is out for revenge.
“It’s never easy,” Schmidt added. “Last year was last year, and this year is this year. St. Louis has been there [before] too. So it’s a whole separate season now. You are one-and-done if you don’t take care of business. I am happy that we have experienced guys, but our experienced guys have to play well.”
The Billikens have a tremendous roster, and they are playing some of their best basketball of the season at the right time. Last Saturday, St. Louis defeated a red-hot VCU team on their home floor.
They have now won three in a row.
But the key for the Billikens on Friday will be limiting turnovers.
Against the Bonnies on Feb. 11 and Feb. 14, St. Louis turned the ball over 35 times. Meanwhile, the Bonnies coughed it up on just a dozen occasions. According to KenPom, the Billikens turn it over on 18.8% of their possessions, which ranks 207th nationally.
That’s not good, especially considering this team ranks in the top 50 in offensive efficiency.
As such, whoever wins the turnover battle will likely advance to Saturday.
For the Bonnies, the keys are limiting Jimerson and not allowing star point guard Yuri Collins to get inside.
Jimerson, who leads the team in scoring, averages 16.3 points per game (PPG) and shoots 41.3% from beyond the arc. He can score at all three levels and has emerged as St. Louis’ top scoring threat.
Then there’s Collins, who leads the conference in assists per game. Collins struggled against Lofton and the Bonnies back in February, as he turned the ball over 15 times over those two games. He scored 18 points in the first meeting but managed to have just four the second time around.
But the most important piece for the Bonnies is Osunniyi, the 6-foot-10 forward who happens to have a 7-foot-8 wingspan.
“He has a unique talent in [blocking shots],” Schmidt said when asked about his star big-man. “He has great length and knows how to block shots without fouling. He’s the key to our defense. When he is not in there, we are not nearly as good defensively. We don’t have a rim protector. When the opposing team is driving in there, [and he’s not there,] they aren’t afraid of anybody. But Osun anchors our defense. When he is in there, and when he is active, we are one of the better defenses in the country. So hopefully he’s healthy and he can play well on Friday. But he is the difference from a defensive standpoint and has been for the last four years.”
There’s a reason why Osunniyi just won the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year Award for the second consecutive season.
The Bonnies have won eight of their past nine games. The lone loss was at VCU on Mar. 1, when Osunniyi did not play because of an ankle injury he suffered on Feb. 26 at St. Joseph’s.
But Osunniyi is back. Last Friday, on Senior Night against Richmond, Osunniyi surpassed Caswell Cyrus to become the all-time leader in blocks in St. Bonaventure school history.
Now he has had a week to rest his ankle. He will be good to go this weekend, barring any setbacks.
Despite Osunniyi’s importance, he’s not the only key player.
Adaway leads the team in scoring, averaging 16.0 PPG. He has been incredible all season, scoring both inside and out. His trademark turnaround jumper gives opposing teams nightmares. The Logansport, Indiana native will have to keep shining in D.C. if Bona wants to make a run.
The whole team will have to play well. They cannot settle for outside shots–the Bonnies are a poor three-point shooting team–instead, they have to get downhill and attack the rim. When Bona gets to the paint, they have success. Each of Lofton, Holmes, Welch, and Adaway are so good at driving to the basket. They have to use their frame and athleticism to attack, not settle.
Over the past month or so, that’s what they have done.
“Well, we are 8-and-1 in the last nine games, so I think we are playing pretty well,” Schmidt said when asked about the current state of his team. “We are getting healthier, and hopefully we can put it all together on Friday at 2:30 p.m. That is the whole emphasis right now is to try and maximize our capabilities and prepare as well as we can for Friday afternoon. Hopefully, we play well enough and we prepare well enough to win.”
The Bonnies have seen it all this year: an Associated Press Top 25 ranking, a Charleston Classic championship, multiple injuries, a lengthy COVID-19 pause, and a seven-game winning streak.
But all of that is history.
Now they are playing in the nation’s capital for a chance at glory.
They did it last year.
But last year was different.
Well, every game is different.
And that’s why I am leaning away from the notion of “it’s hard to beat a team three times.”
A lot of pundits picked the Billikens to beat the Bonnies. But there is something special about this “Iron Man Five,” and I have a feeling that they will continue to enlighten the Brown and White faithful this weekend.
There are four games scheduled on Friday in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. This will be the game of the day. It will come down to the final possession or two, but the Bonnies will lean on Adaway to survive another day.
St. Bonaventure 72, St. Louis 70
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.