[Andrew Nicholson and Charlon Kloof start celebrating as the clock nears zero and their upset of Xavier is complete – Photo by Daulton Sherwin]
By Ryan Lazo, Co-editor in chief/feature columnist, @RMLazo13
Nine years ago this never seemed possible for St. Bonaventure.
The basketball program was in ruins. Scandal had overtaken the community, resulting in the resignations of both the school president and head basketball coach.
Players refused to play out the final two games of the season after they were banned from the conference tournament.
News crews from the local and national media descended on the small campus in Olean, N.Y., covering the biggest college basketball story of the year.
Fast forward nine years to the day – March 11. Sr. Margaret Carney O.S.M., university president, did not stand in front of media to discuss a basketball program in ruins, but stood on the court watching one rise from the ashes.
Completing a magical end-of-the-season run, the Bonnies went into Atlantic City and won three games, culminating in a championship game victory over perennial power house Xavier.
The 67-56 win continues to captivate Bona fans, students and locals as the team refocuses themselves to play No. 3 seeded Florida State in Nashville, Tenn. on Friday.
It will mark the first time they have been in the NCAA Tournament since a double-overtime loss to Kentucky in the first round of the 2000 tournament and marks a recovery from the darks days of 2003.
Mark Schmidt was hired in 2008 to help rebuild the program, following Anthony Solomon’s disastrous stint as coach, and immediately realized how important Bona basketball is to the community.
“I did an alumni function at Buffalo,” Schmidt recalled. “An elderly woman stood up and told me the winters here are long and cold, but the last four years they have been really long and really cold.
“Basketball is the rallying point. It’s good, it brings us together.”
It has done more than that. It’s brought a common dream of upset wins, especially because of the Bonnies’ Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Andrew Nicholson.
Nicholson is a dominating inside presence and a first round NBA draft prospect.
He toys with defenders using an assortment of moves: hook-shots, up and unders, spin-moves and even long-range jump shots. It is these moves that have him compared to NBA Hall of Famer and Bona legend Bob Lanier.
During the A-10 Tournament, Nicholson did his best impression of the man who led St. Bonaventure to the 1970 Final Four.
He averaged 23 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks during the three-game stretch of dominance.
The effort not only placed him on the All-Tournament Team but he was also named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“People always ask me if he’s better than Bob Lanier,” Schmidt said. “I don’t know, but I know he’s our Bob Lanier.”
“He’s a poor man’s Tim Duncan, by far the best player in our league and an NBA team needs to take him in the first round, period,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said following his team’s loss to the Bonnies. “Glad he’s gone; great kid, though.”
But looming in Nashville are the Atlantic Coast Conference Champion Florida State Seminoles. The Seminoles are the first team since 1995-96 to beat both Duke and North Carolina twice in the same season.
They have a big front court, with three players standing at least 6-foot-8, and are extremely athletic.
They boast one of the top defenses in the country, ranking fourth nationally in field goal percentage (37.9) and eighth in blocks (5.9 bpg).
But as talented as they are, they can be beaten, having lost to both Princeton and Harvard out of the Ivy League.
“To win the ACC Tournament, that’s all you need to say,” Schmidt said. “It’s not like we are playing the Bulls. They are a talented team, but we are going there to play.
“We just won the Atlantic 10 Tournament, and that’s the seventh-best conference in the country. We don’t have to take a back seat.”
Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton said his team is not taking the Bonnies lightly.
“They’ve got an outstanding go-to guy that everybody says is a first round draft pick,” Hamilton said. “They are a very well-coached team that obviously beat a very good Xavier team that was nationally ranked.
“They have our attention – no question about that.”
Nine years removed from scandal and 12 years removed from their last tournament appearance, the Bonnies are back.
With a late-season surge, role players stepping up, Nicholson playing the part of Lanier and a team commitment to defense and rebounding, the Bonnies have brought pride back to the Franciscan university.
“Our thing is if we’re in it, we might as well win it,” Schmidt said of his team’s mindset.
After shocking everyone by winning the A-10, Schmidt and his team aim for a first round upset that could send the Bonnies into the national spotlight once again.