Justin Winston

St. Bonaventure’s Justin Winston (35) collects a rebound against Vermont during a game at the Reilly Center earlier this month.

It might not be viewed in the same historical context as, say, the famous 1977 National Invitation Tournament matchup.

In that one, remember, Glenn Hagan’s buzzer-beater lifted the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team to a 79-77 first round overtime triumph over Rutgers, paving the way for Bona to win it all at Madison Square Garden 10 days later.

It might not even mean as much as the teams’ Garden State Challenge meeting in 2008.

On that day, the Bonnies pulled out a 64-63 overtime road win over the Scarlet Knights, then with the Big East, one of the earliest indications that change, indeed, was coming under then-second-year coach Mark Schmidt.

Ultimately, though, Saturday’s 80-74 victory over Rutgers in the inaugural James Naismith Classic inside Toronto’s ScotiaBank Arena will almost certainly evoke its own significance.

No, the 2019-20 Bonnies haven’t yet “arrived,” no matter how much it felt like they did in the moment. This is still a 1-3 team, one that actually came perilously close to allowing a 19-point lead to dissolve into an 0-4 start and will be going up against a much tougher Atlantic 10 this year.

Only four games into their career, their youngsters could still look like stars one day and freshmen again the next, and, right now, that’s simply an unavoidable aspect of the maturation process.

But here’s what that triumph — the program’s first in as many tries in Canada — also was, and might have been:

• An earlier-than-expected breakout performance for freshmen Justin Winston and AJ Vasquez, the latter of whom was named the Player of the Game, who combined for an impressive 39 points on 14-of-23 shooting.

• An indication that maybe these Bonnies won’t need quite as long to turn a corner as last year’s team, which endured that forgettable 4-10 start before finally beginning to put it all together.

• An early snapshot of what this team, with a little bit of seasoning and a return to full health, might look like come March.

And if there’s anything we learned from last year’s struggles, that last bullet point is really what it’s all about.

THERE WILL come a day, perhaps when the current crop of sophomores are seniors, where Bona will have to play better from the start, where an 0-3 record would be indefensible, where there will be a lot more on the line than there is in November of 2019.

There are still plenty of facets to improve upon going forward this season: Despite connecting on double-digit treys in each of the last two games, it’s still shooting just 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range; more harrowing: it’s allowing an average of over 27 free throw attempts per game, which currently ranks No. 341 out of 353 teams nationally.

It has to stop fouling so much.

In the meantime, however, it’s become fascinating (again) to watch these young players begin to grow up … and wonder just how high the ceiling is collectively. And that’s particularly true of Winston.

The West Orange, N.J., native has gotten better with each passing game, going from an unused bench player against Ohio to, at times, the best player on the floor against the Scarlet Knights. You can see the natural ability that made him a four-star recruit out of prep school beginning to cascade.

WINSTON IS a capable 3-point shooter, having knocked down 4-of-5 against Rutgers, a welcome and scary sight (for opponents) as a 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward. At one point Saturday, he crossed over a defender at the top of the key before driving and banking home a floater over a smothering Ron Harper Jr.

Given his size and athletic ability, he appears to have all the makings of an eventual matchup problem of sorts.

And right now, win or lose, the most important thing for Bona is to see these tangible signs of growth.

"They played," Schmidt said of Winston, who’s averaging 13 points in three games with meaningful minutes, and Vasquez. "They weren’t worried about where they were playing, who they were playing. They went out there, they played well, they played with confidence, and it was good to see."

In competing with a tough Siena team on the road and taking down a Big Ten squad in Toronto, Bona seems to be inching closer to the team fans envisioned in the preseason.

Where will it be in February, with three more months of experience and its all-conference-caliber center back in the lineup?

That remains to be seen, though the prospect seems promising.

Until then, it has its first building-block victory, which, naturally, came with the help of an impressive traveling Bona contingent.

"I'm really proud to be the coach at Bonaventure," Schmidt said, when asked about that atmosphere on Saturday. "The alums and students and boosters come in and really do a great job.

"You look at Rutgers and they probably have 40,000 students on campus and hundreds of thousands of alums. We've got 30,000 alums and we're all here, it feels like. It's a special place; they really support us and without them, we would have had a really difficult time tonight. It felt at times like the Reilly Center."

Jim Eckstrom is executive editor of the Olean Times Herald and Bradford Publishing Co. His email is jeckstrom@oleantimesherald.com.)

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