ST. BONAVENTURE — It was a big enough opportunity by itself.
Back home against Hofstra, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team had a chance at not only its biggest win of the year, but to earn its fourth-straight victory and move above .500 for the first time this winter.
Then, there was the added motivation that came with the following:
Playing in front of a near-sellout crowd. Taking the floor before nine of the program’s 20 All-Time Team selections. Playing for the most esteemed team in Bona annals — the 1969-70 Final Four squad — and its best player, the great Bob Lanier.
From before the opening tip, it seemed, there were too many incentives for the Bonnies to come away with anything but a victory on this, the grandest day of its 100th season celebration. What unfolded was a flawless afternoon for the 5,480 in attendance and anyone else under the Bona umbrella.
Jaren English and Dominick Welch each scored 17 points and, in front of its legends, Bona pummeled the Colonial Athletic Association favorites, 73-45, inside the Reilly Center on Saturday afternoon.
By the time “Wade in the Water” blasted through the loudspeakers, Final Four team member Greg “Bubba” Gary danced his way through the receiving line and the rest of his iconic teammates were announced, it was exactly what Saturday was intended to be:
“I THINK it’s truly an honor just to even be in their presence with all the great things they’ve done for this program,” said English, who’s been a massive difference-maker for Bona (5-4) since returning from a hand injury in late November. “Coach (Mark) Schmidt reiterates it to us every day: We have to play for everybody in this town and we have to play for the people that played before us.
“I think we just did that today, and we just came out with a little more extra punch.”
After a typically slow start (down 11-4), Bona quickly went back on script — and exceeded even the most optimistic expectation — embarking upon a wild 24-1 run to take a 28-12 lead and establish a tone from which it would never stray.
Osun Osunniyi, who grabbed 16 rebounds to go with two blocks, began the onslaught with a pair of dunks. English drained two 3-pointers and had eight points in that stretch. Bobby Planutis, who finished with 11 points, knocked down a trey and capped the run with a tough layup with 8:45 remaining in the half.
By the end, the Bonnies had played easily their most complete contest of the season.
Offensively: They shot 49 percent, including a scorching 64 percent in the first half, and made 12-of-25 3-pointers against the Pride’s 2-3 zone. Defensively: They held a Hofstra team that had been scoring 82 points per game (No. 25 nationally) to nearly half that average on 27 percent from the floor.
And on the glass, an area that had hindered them over the first three weeks, they were plus-10 (45-35).
“IT COULDN’T have been better,” Schmidt said of that two-plus hour stretch inside an electric RC. “The Final Four team here, (players from the) NIT championship team here, a lot of the top 20 players …
“For our guys to go out and play the way they did, I’m really proud of their effort. We couldn’t have played better defensively. We had a tremendous crowd; it couldn’t have been better. It was a great day to be a Bonnie.”
Bona’s surge coincided with the entrance of Osunniyi, whom, Schmidt noted afterward, was still banged up after missing the second half of Monday’s win over Florida Atlantic and whose status for Saturday was uncertain. After checking in just before the first media timeout, ‘Shoon had another dominant day defensively on the boards while adding eight points.
Its turnaround from a 1-4 start has hinged on the return of Osunniyi and English from injury, an increase in production from players such as Planutis and a significant improvement in its shooting.
After entering the Boca Classic tournament last in the A-10 in 3-point percentage, the Bonnies have made 27-of-57 from beyond the arc (an impressive 47 percent) over their last three contests.
On Saturday, English and Welch combined to go 9-of-15 from distance.
“I THINK our guys are getting it,” said Schmidt, whose team took a 40-26 lead into halftime and led by as many as 31 against a Hofstra team (6-4) that had beaten UCLA by 10 earlier in the season before coasting down the stretch. “They understand the urgency, they understand the importance of each possession.
“We’re not (all the way) there, but I don’t want to be there right now. We want to be playing our best as we go forward. But the kids are learning; they don’t do it all the time, but today was a big step forward playing against a team of that caliber.”
On Saturday, Bona won in exactly the kind of fashion that Schmidt prefers.
“That’s how you win,” he said. “You defend and rebound — those two things keep you in the game. And then if you have an offensive performance like we had today, then you’re going to get some victories.
And this one … it was for that iconic Final Four team, with whom the current Bonnies had dinner the night before in the Hall of Fame room, and for whom Bona put on a show in the RC.
“They paved the way for us, they really did,” English said. “The court’s named after Bob Lanier, and we play on that court everyday. It’s an honor to get on that court. Everybody’s not able to play here at Bonaventure, and we were able to today in front of the greats — the Final Four team … and pros — and that was just a tremendous honor.”