photo courtesy of 2021 NCAA photos
By Jeff Uveino
BLOOMINGTON, IN — The St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team’s offense had been fickle since November.
Mark Schmidt’s team hadn’t counted on its offense to win games on its way to the NCAA Tournament, instead relying on a top-ten defense.
While 3-point shooting came and went, defending, rebounding and taking care of the basketball were constants. Against LSU on Saturday, however, the Bonnies were bested at two of their strengths.
No. 9 SBU (16-5) never found its way back from a first-half deficit and lost to No. 8 LSU (19-9), 76-61, in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
It started with poor first-half shooting. The Bonnies labored to a 22% mark from the field in the first half, paired with an 0-of-10 3-point shooting performance.
By halftime, Bona trailed by nine points. SBU’s defense held its weight throughout the first stanza, holding the Tigers to 31 points on 36% shooting and a 3-of-14 mark from 3-point range.
“I thought we were getting some good looks in the first half, and we were missing some shots,” said Schmidt, SBU’s head coach. “As I said, offense is fickle. But I thought we were getting some decent looks.”
As the Bonnies started to find offensive rhythm in the second half, LSU did the same. Junior forward Darius Days began the half with a 3-pointer for the Tigers, and from there, Bona failed to muster a comeback. Despite repeatedly counter-punching LSU’s eighth-ranked offense, the Bonnies never cut the lead to less than nine.
LSU’s rebounding on both ends of the floor helped the Tigers keep their distance. The Tigers finished the game with a 49-30 rebounding advantage, 14 of which came on the offensive glass.
While LSU only scored two more points in the paint than the Bonnies, the Tigers enjoyed an 18-8 advantage in second-chance points.
“That’s one of our strengths,” Schmidt said of rebounding. “We got out-rebounded by 19; second-chance points by 10. So that was a big difference.”
Freshman guard Cam Thomas scored a game-high 27 points for the Tigers. Thomas heated up in the second half after a 1-of-8 first half from the field and got to the free-throw line 13 times, making 11 of his attempts.
“(Thomas) is a great player,” Bona junior guard Jaren Holmes said. “It was a very tough assignment. One of the things was trying to keep him off the foul line. I don’t know how many foul shots he got… but we did the best we could.”
Holmes, who scored a team-high 18 points for the Bonnies, said that his team “did what we were supposed to do,” but poor shooting limited its opportunity for offensive success.
“That’s basketball,” Holmes said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t fall. Those are shots we want. Those are shots we normally hit.”
Days and sophomore guard Aundre Hyatt each scored 13 points for LSU, while sophomore forward Trendon Watford added 11 points.
“You get down, and I thought the key going into the game was we gotta control tempo,” Schmidt said. “If you look at the score, we held them below their average, and I thought we did a decent job on everybody but Thomas. They hurt us on the backboard. But when you get down, you’ve got to push the ball and you’ve got to play a little bit quicker, and that’s to their advantage.”
Of Schmidt’s three evergreen keys to victory, protecting the basketball was the one category in which Bona succeeded. SBU only turned the ball over four times while forcing nine turnovers. The nine that they caused, however, only resulted in five points.
Junior forward/center Osun Osunniyi scored 15 points and pulled down nine rebounds for the Bonnies. Osunniyi, the Atlantic 10 defensive player of the year, looked confident while protecting the rim in the first half. As the Tigers got hot in the second half, however, they drew Osunniyi from under the basket and began to find more success scoring in the paint.
“They’re a good team, athletic team,” Schmidt said. “Like I said, I thought we got some good looks. We missed some shots early. But they’re a good team, you know, and they were disciplined, they were focused, and when they play like that, they’re hard to beat.”
Junior forward Jalen Adaway scored 11 points for the Bonnies in his return to his native state to Indiana, while junior guard Kyle Lofton scored 10 points and dished out five assists. Lofton struggled from the field in the first half, shooting 1-of-10, before finishing at 3-of-18.
Bona junior guard Dominick Welch, one of the team’s best defenders, missed time in the first half after turning an ankle during a scramble for a loose ball. Welch returned to the game late in the first half and played the rest of the way, but the pain from his foot was visible the rest of the way.
“Yeah, it hurt,” Schmidt said. “(Welch) played like at 50%. Give (Welch) credit. He’s a really tough kid and he was hurting, as you saw. Went back in to get re-taped and he was a shell of himself.”
While Bona’s season ended between the walls of the historic Assembly Hall, Indiana University’s cathedral of basketball in which the Hoosiers have played for 50 years, the program can find solace in knowing that it doesn’t graduate a single senior.
Still, Holmes said, the pain that comes with the end of this group’s NCAA Tournament run will sting long beyond the bus ride home to Western New York.
“Every guy in that locker room is a competitor, and I know one thing about a competitor is he wants to be the best and continue to be the best, and right now today we weren’t the best,” Holmes said. “That’s a problem for us. That’s going to be in our heads for a long time. But it’s just going to make us better, and it’s going to just make us keep fighting and working hard and coming closer together.”
LSU advances to the tournament’s second round, in which it will face top-seeded Michigan. From there, three more wins secure the East region title and a spot in the Final Four.
Disappointment will accompany Schmidt’s group on its way home. However, after a season in which the Bonnies won the A-10 regular-season title and A-10 tournament for the first time in the same year, the 14th-year coach knows that he has as much to be proud of as ever.
“It’s good that they’re disappointed,” Schmidt said. “I’m disappointed. You put so much into it. If you’re not disappointed, there’s something wrong. So we’ll get the 24-hour rule and we’ll realize, as I told the team in the locker room, we did some amazing things.”