photo by Megan Lee/The Commonwealth Times
By Jeff Uveino
DAYTON, OH — If there was a checklist for winning an Atlantic 10 championship game, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team had checked all but one box two years ago.
That final box, as junior guard Dominick Welch had said the week before this year’s final, was finishing.
SBU had came within eight minutes of an A-10 championship against Saint Louis two years ago, but fell short in the game’s final minutes. Welch, Osun Osunniyi and Kyle Lofton, who each started that game as freshmen, made sure the same thing didn’t happen on Sunday.
The top-seeded Bonnies (16-4) built a first-half lead and didn’t give it up on their way to beating No. 2 VCU (19-7), 74-65, at UD Arena.
After sitting with four fouls for five minutes of the second half, Welch provided the dagger.
With 1:16 left in the game, the Bonnies leading by eight and the shot clock winding down, Welch pivoted away from a defender and nailed a 3-pointer.
The Bona lead became 12 points. The pro-Bona crowd that made the 400-mile trip to Dayton broke into a frenzy. And, moments later, SBU head coach Mark Schmidt raised his hands above his head as he embraced his staff, overcome with emotion.
For the second time in program history, the Bonnies won the Atlantic 10 tournament. They’ll represent the Atlantic 10 as the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“Two years ago, four of our guys couldn’t finish,” Schmidt said. “We didn’t finish that game and we lost, and a lot of times you don’t get a second chance in life. We got a second chance, and those guys finished.”
Welch finished with 13 points while Lofton scored 23 points and handed out six assists. Perhaps the player of the game, however, and the most valuable player of the tournament, was Osun Osunniyi.
The junior forward/center finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. Like his teammates that experienced 2019’s A-10 final, the 55-53 loss had been stuck in his head ever since.
“Yeah, it was on our mind,” Osunniyi said. “We were one shot away from where we are right now. That’s been on my mind, (Lofton’s) mind. The guys who came in our class that are juniors now, that’s been on our mind since day one and it was on our mind when we faced Saint Louis in the semifinals.”
Osunniyi’s presence under the rim throughout the tournament, despite not having its own column on the stat sheet, was paramount to the success of SBU’s defense.
“We didn’t change what got us (here),” Schmidt said. “We defended, we rebounded and we took care of the basketball. Against VCU, a talented team that is so well coached, if you don’t take care of the basketball… when they get numbers, it’s lethal.”
Defense, as Schmidt has said for weeks, continues to be Bona’s staple. SBU’s efforts to limit VCU leading scorer and A-10 player of the year Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland were largely successful despite Hyland’s team-high 21 points.
Hyland sat for over 10 minutes in the first half after picking up three early fouls. The sophomore guard scored all of his points in the second half, many of which came after the Bonnies had built a double-digit lead.
“The goal was to deny him the ball as much as we could,” Schmidt said. “He’s just a talented guy. One thing we didn’t do, and especially in the second half, was we fouled him too many times.”
Hyland was 4-of-11 from the field, most of his points coming from an 11-of-12 free-throw shooting performance.
“When you lose your best player, the team’s not going to be as good,” Schmidt said. “You knew that he was going to come back and be aggressive in the second half, but I thought our guys did a really good job making it hard for him.”
Hyland’s efforts brought his team within seven points midway through the second half, but Bona prevented the Rams from coming all the way back. Vince Williams Jr. tallied 12 points and nine rebounds for the Rams while Josh Banks scored 10 points.
Jaren Holmes scored nine points and pulled down seven rebounds for Bona while Jalen Adaway scored 10 points. Osunniyi, Lofton and Adaway were each included on the all-tournament team.
“It’s a special group,” Schmidt said. “Not that the other groups aren’t special, but in the moment now, I hold these guys close to my heart. They endured a lot of things this year and were able to come through.”
SBU’s second NCAA tournament in four years marks the third time that the Bonnies will go “dancing” under Schmidt. They first did it in 2012 after winning the A-10 tournament as the No. 4 seed, then received an at-large bid in 2018.
Bona received a No. 9 seed in this year’s tournament, and will play No. 8 LSU on Saturday in Indianapolis in the tournament’s first round. For Lofton, Osunniyi and many more, playing in the NCAA tournament will fulfill a childhood dream.
“Going to Indianapolis for the NCAA tournament is like a dream come true,” Lofton said. “Since kids, we’ve been working for that, and to finally live the dream is amazing.”
For Schmidt, the chance to take basketball-crazed St. Bonaventure back to the NCAA tournament is priceless. Schmidt has rebuilt the program over his 14 years as head coach, and now continues to oversee one of the most successful periods in the program’s history.
“The smiles on our guys’ faces: that’s what you coach for,” Schmidt said. “Those are the memories that will last a lifetime. You see those big smiles, and how proud and satisfied the players are. For them, this is a dream come true. When you’re playing in the backyard or down at the playground, this is what you dream of.”