An extension of his team’s struggles, Kyle Lofton had gotten off to a forgettable start from the field this year.
Through the first seven games, he’d made just 4-of-26 (15 percent) from 3-point range, a disappointing figure given the improvement he’d shown in that category by the end of last season. The St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team, from top to bottom, hadn’t been much better, checking in at 29 percent.
Bona hit a couple of big ones on Monday, however.
And the biggest came from its sophomore point guard.
Lofton hit a clutch trifecta off an inbounds play following a timeout with 50 seconds remaining to put the Bonnies up four and essentially seal a 71-64 come-from-behind victory over host Florida Atlantic in the Hall of Fame Bracket championship game of the Boca Raton Beach Classic at FAU Arena on Monday night.
A night after pulling away from San Diego to reach the title contest, Bona overcame plenty of adversity to pull to .500 (4-4) for the first time this season.
It came back from a 17-point first-half deficit to take a five-point lead in the waning minutes before hanging on in the end. It won despite once again losing star center Osun Osunniyi, who had a monster performance Monday, but limped off late in the first half against FAU and never returned. It turned another unsightly half offensively -- Bona trailed 33-25 at the break -- into a second-straight 70-plus point performance.
Its first in-season tournament title since defeating Michigan and Virginia Tech to win the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands in November 2002.
“OUR GUYS believed; they kept on working hard,” coach Mark Schmidt said afterward. “We’ve (said) over and over again to just play hard, and if you play hard, it gives you a chance. We hit some big shots -- Dom hit some big shots, Kyle hit some big shots, Bobby hit some big shots.
“The guys played hard, especially when ‘Shoon went down. We found a way. I’m proud of their effort, and I know they’re proud of the results.”
On this night, another impressive traveling Bona crowd made FAU feel like the road team in its own gym. After a rough first 16 minutes and a first half in which they shot just 36 percent, made only 2-of-6 from 3-point range and committed seven turnovers, the Bonnies eventually gave the SBU faithful something to cheer about.
After trimming that 17-point deficit to eight at halftime, Bona made it a one-possession game midway through the second stanza before embarking upon a 16-2 run against a crumbling FAU (4-4) team to turn an eight-point hole into a 62-56 advantage with 3:39 remaining.
And though Schmidt’s team was without Osunniyi, who had gone for 15 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks against the Toreros, his classmates made up the difference … as did his grizzled replacement.
DOMINICK WELCH, who finished with 15 points, connected on three big treys during that second half run, including the shot that tied it at 54 with 6:55 left. Lofton, who totaled 14 points and six assists with no turnovers, finished a layup to give Bona its first lead (56-54) since going up 4-2 in the opening minutes.
Bobby Planutis had easily his best game in a Bona uniform, scoring 14 points -- all in the second half -- on 5-for-7 shooting, connecting on two 3-pointers and grabbing seven rebounds, including a couple of key offensive boards. His 2-for-3 effort from distance doubled his season total (1-for-17 prior) as the 6-foot-8 forward finally began to get it going offensively.
Senior center Amadi Ikpeze filled in ably for Osunniyi, notching nine points (7 in the second half), seven rebounds and a pair of assists.
After another stagnant start, Bona played its best period of the season after the break, outscoring the Owls 46-31 -- its largest point total in a half this year -- while shooting 57 percent from the floor, including 6-of-8 from 3-point range and limiting FAU to just 30 percent and 3-of-13 from distance.
“I THOUGHT Amadi played tremendously in the second half,” said Schmidt before adding of his team’s defensive effort: “We did a much better job of keeping the ball out of the paint, and making it tough for them. And we hit some shots -- Dom hit the one in front of the bench; Kyle off the out-of-bounds. Our veteran guys made big plays.”
He said of Planutis’ breakout effort: “He finally made a couple 3s, which we need. We did what we needed to do at the end to get the victory.”
Bona, which won its second showcase event of the winter after knocking off Rutgers in the inaugural James Naismith Classic last month, has now won three-straight -- over Mercer (No. 239 in the KenPom), San Diego (No. 187) and Florida Atlantic (No. 217) -- to give itself its first real momentum of the year.
Across two games in Florida, it began to show signs of life again offensively.
On Monday, it earned something even sweeter than getting back to .500.
“We weren’t thinking about .500, we were thinking about coming down here to win the championship,” Schmidt said, “and after we got the first one (Sunday night), it gave us a shot. We didn’t play great in the first half; we didn’t play great in the first five minutes of the second half, but we found a way.
“Being down 17 with (25 minutes left), it shows the character of our players. They believed, and I’m proud of them.”