[St. Bonaventure may be on the outside looking in at the Atlantic 10 Tournament, but recent play has given hope for the future – Photo by Daulton Sherwin]
By Ryan Lazo, Editor-in-Chief, @RMLazo13
BRONX, N.Y. — Everyone knew it would be tough for St. Bonaventure to even come close to experiencing the same type of success they had during last season’s magical run to the Sweet 16, but the surprise is success now comes in small increments.
The Bonnies compiled a 31-4 record, capturing the regular season Atlantic 10 Conference champion crown and one Jessica Jenkins’ 3-pointer from being the outright champs, but fell short in the tournament finals against Dayton. Graduating three senior starters in Megan Van Tatenhove, Jenkins and Armelia Horton, part of the winningest class in program history, didn’t help either.
However, this Bona squad still had six players returning from last year’s squad, three of which who figured to be instrumental in continuing the winning tradition. But injuries struck, knocking Chelsea Bowker and her career 39 percent 3-point shooting out for the season.
CeCe Dixon averaged 7.6 points per game last season and was expected to pick up some of the scoring slack, but while she has modestly improved her points per game average to 8.4, it has not been the improvement Bona had hoped.
Dixon’s struggles have mirrored the struggles of the team — a season once full of hope turned to one of lessons to be learned. And against a Fordham squad that eclipsed the 20-win plateau for the first time in program history, school was in session once again.
Bona won the opening tip and as almost as quick as they gained possession, Fordham struck quick by capturing an early 12-4 advantage. But as Bona has done all season, they fought back almost immediately and this run was led by Dixon.
The 5-foot-3 guard nailed two 3-pointers including one in which she was fouled on and completed a conventional 4-point play to cut the deficit to 12-11.
“That’s us,” Bona coach Jim Crowley said of his young team. “That’s been the most frustrating part of this season is that we haven’t embraced that. But in the last three games at least, we have. We can control how hard we play. We may not be great shooters, but we can play really hard and give ourselves a chance.”
Yes, small baby-steps for these Bonnies.
Slowly, but surely they have learned to play hard no matter what the scoreboard might say or the situation is dictating. It’s a trademark of a Crowley coached team and it finally surfaced in a loss to No. 14 Dayton last week.
Trailing by 13 points with just 37 seconds remaining, the Bonnies fought to the bitter end, stealing inbounds passes and swishing threes with ruthless efficiency to pull as close as 65-61. But that was as close as they would come.
Against Fordham, Bona trailed 41-27 at the half only to roar out of the locker room on a mission. After their No. 14 ranked 3-point defense surrender nine 3-pointers in the first half, Bona locked down and contested every shot. It was their defense which fueled the offense as they went on a 20-7 run to open up the half.
But once again, their comeback efforts were for not as they could not finish the deal.
“It’s good to see them buying in,” Crowley said. “We’ll see if they continue to and that can give us some real good momentum as we head into the offseason.”
The dreaded offseason word.
Yes, the defending regular season A-10 Champions were officially eliminated from the A-10 Tournament with last night’s loss, leaving them on the outside looking in after an historical season.
But Crowley had a point.
While the success may not be easy to find on a grisly 9-19 record, including nine losses in a row, progress is being made.
Crowley has overseen rebuilding projects before and is doing so once again. For three consecutive seasons, Bona’s head man oversaw a nine-win team, but then something clicked. The team no longer feared opponents and their play improved much like it’s doing again.
The last freshmen class turned into the winningest in program history. While it would be unfair to compare the two, there are plenty of similarities between them and it begins with Katie Healy.
Healy has improved as she has played more games, especially within conference play. The freshman forward is second on the team, averaging 11 points and nabbing 6.8 rebounds per contest. However, it’s her game, one that includes polished footwork in the paint and a deft touch from the outside that has made some to compare her to Van Tatenhove.
Emily Michael has not scored a lot this season, but she has started in 20 consecutive games, becoming a reliable option for Crowley. The Ohio native continually makes the right decisions and plays tough defense with an ability to hit from the outside at a 30 percent clip.
Even Nyla Rueter has come alive in conference play, scoring a career-high 15 points against Charlotte. Her 38 percent shooting from the field will only improve as she becomes more confident in her stroke.
Add to them the return of Dixon, Bowker and Doris Ortega who leads the Bonnies in points per game, rebounds and assists and suddenly the team looks promising once again.
“We know what they can be, but we don’t see it on a consistent basis,” Crowley said after his team’s loss to Fordham. “It’s been good the past couple of games where we’ve seen that consistent effort. Now that we have that and as we head into the offseason, we can really focus on getting people better.”
A win against La Salle won’t mean anything to the Bonnies record, but it would send Bona into the offseason on a high note, setting the stage for a rapid turnaround next season with a group who has learned how to compete in the A-10 Conference.