AMHERST, Mass. — Mark Schmidt tugged at his tie and stared off into the distance as he made the agonizing walk to shake UMass coach Derek Kellogg’s hand.
And who knows what the seventh-year coach, who had just been denied his 100th win at Bona and biggest-regular season triumph with the program, was thinking in those few moments.
Charlon Kloof, too, simply stared off onto this distance, this time in the postgame press conference, his voice barely above a whisper as he tried to compute what had just happened outside those doors.
And who knows what the senior point guard, whose commendable individual effort had just gone for naught, was thinking in those few moments.
Yes, in the immediate aftermath of this, a stunning 73-68 loss to No. 19 Massachusetts on Saturday afternoon inside the Mullins Center, on the bus ride home and when they wake up tomorrow and probably the day after that, the Bonnies — and their cult-like fan base — will feel pain, anguish and maybe a little anger.
And that’s because this game was not only there for the taking, it was theirs, period. The Bonnies, 8-point underdogs at tipoff, had outplayed, outworked and outclassed the Minutemen, who’d been 13-1, unbeaten at home and ranked No. 4 in the Ratings Percentage Index, for much of the game.
They’d put UMass’ :under more water than you’d in been all season,” as one hometown reporter put it to Kellogg afterward. Indeed, even the likes of Boston College, New Mexico and Clemson had not taken it to the Minutemen the way Bona had over the first 31 minutes.
Schmidt’s team went up 13 on three different occasions in the middle of the half, getting everything to fall, forcing UMass into turnovers and generally sloppy play, and it seemed as if this would be the next eyebrow-raising moment in a season that had already had a few of them: its first win over a ranked opponent under Schmidt, its first road win over a ranked team since as far as the media guide’s records go back (1976).
They couldn’t hold onto that lead, however, outscored 26-8 over the final nine minutes by a team that, in the end, is still probably a bit better than them.
And that’s the reason why Schmidt and Kloof and the rest of the team, undoubtedly, could only stare stone-faced when looking up at that final score. Because it was in their grasp, because they’d missed an opportunity to make a statement that would have trumped the Richmond, Delaware and Iona victories all rolled into one.
But that’s only the immediate aftermath.
At some point today or tomorrow, if they haven’t already, the Bonnies will take to the practice floor and realize that they just took a ranked team in a rowdy environment down to the last possession, and that that, in and of itself, is an eye-brow raising moment for this team.
“We’re not into moral victories,” Schmidt reminded the room afterward. “We didn’t come to Massachusetts to give them a good game. We wanted to win.
“Having said that, it gives us confidence. We went toe-to-toe with a team that’s really good. We’re disappointed ... we hate to lose, but it gives our guys some confidence that they know if they play well they can compete and beat the elite teams in the league.”
Remember, according to any number of media types, Bona wasn’t supposed to do a thing this season. It was supposed to wallow in the loss of its three leading scorers and its lack of talent and take its rightful place in the bottom three of the league this year.
Interesting thing is, through two months and two conference games, Schmidt and his squad didn’t get that memo. So far, they’ve actually looked much better than they did with Demitrius Conger and company last season.
There are still 14 games remaining, a lot of basketball to be played. It’s probably fair to say, however, that after collecting 10 non-conference wins, a majority of them handily, running past Richmond on Wednesday night and nearly knocking off the No. 19 team in the nation on the road, we’re not watching the 12th-best team in the Atlantic 10 right now.
As ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan posted on his Twitter account afterward: “There are probably three or four truly bad teams in the A-10 this year, and St. Bonaventure isn’t one of them.
Do the Bonnies feel as though they sent another message with their performance Saturday?
“Every night we dress up, we have a chip on our shoulders, “ Kloof said. “We’re trying to send a message every night. We don’t come into places to have moral victories, we come into places to win games.”
A win over UMass and perhaps the sky’s the limit for this team over the final two months. Maybe it still is, given its body over work over the first two months.
Either way, the Bonnies officially have our attention.
(J.P. Butler, a Times Herald sports writer, can be reached at email@example.com)