Second half rally lifts Bona past VCU, 70-54

St. Bonaventure’s Dominick Welch (1) reaches for the ball with teammate Osun Osunniyi (21) looking on with VCU’s Levi Stockard III (34) defending in the second half of Wednesday’s Atlantic 10 game at the Reilly Center.

ST. BONAVENTURE — The signs had been there since before Christmas.

On Dec. 19, in its first experience of playing inside an empty Reilly Center, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team managed to go up 30-7 on Colonial Athletic Association favorite Hofstra in barely the first 10 minutes.

And though it ultimately came back to Earth, falling behind 66-62 with five minutes remaining, the message was clear: when this team, and this particular starting five, is on and clicking and defending … it is that good.

In the month since, outside of an unsightly showing at Rhode Island, in which one of those key cogs was missing, Bona has only continued to make that case.

Coach Mark Schmidt’s team took down Atlantic 10 favorite Richmond on the road. It trounced its next opponent by 26 and beat the following three by an average of 15. It earned a pair of Top-70 victories (per KenPom, over the 49th-ranked Spiders and No. 69 VCU) along the way.

But the biggest indication that this team — the Bonnies’ new “Iron Man 5” — might truly be onto something, could eventually be compared to, or even exceed, the other top teams under Schmidt’s watch (in 2012, ‘16 and ‘18) occurred over the final 20 minutes on Wednesday night against VCU.

In one of the most stunning stretches of the Schmidt era, Bona turned a 15-point halftime hole into a 16-point (70-54) triumph. It all but erased that deficit, with a flurry of dunks, drives and baseline finishes, by the first media timeout of the second half. It outscored the Rams 45-14 in that span.

Yes, we’ve witnessed big Bona comebacks before.

But this wasn’t like rallying from 18 down to beat a young UMass team at home (in 2015-16) or storming back from an 18-point deficit to avoid losing to a bad Saint Joe’s squad (in 2016-17) or brushing aside an early 15-point hole to beat an average George Mason team by 12 (last year).

This was different. This was Bona, after a poor first half, taking it to one of the league’s perennial powers, a VCU team that had sat just a half game behind the Bonnies for first in the A-10 standings, a Top 100 squad, one with NCAA aspirations all its own. This was Bona sending another missive to its league brethren: This year, trying circumstances or not, it intends to take a back seat to no one.

“It’s a special group, but not only that, it’s the right group of guys,” said junior guard Jaren Holmes, when asked to assess the magnitude of Wednesday’s win. “We’re really together; I mean, this is a family, we wouldn’t want it any other way.

“We want to be the best, we want to win an A-10 championship. And I think that’s the goal when we come out here in practice and we have off days and we get extra shots up. I think that’s everybody’s goal on this team, and that’s a big step, wanting to win.”

Has Bona, just over a third of the way through this shortened season, played its way into the at-large conversation? Without a real non-conference and the accompanying opportunities for big-name victories (like in 2017-18, when Bona beat Syracuse and Maryland), it’s difficult to say.

But it probably should be considered as such.

Schmidt’s team (7-1, 5-1), as of Thursday night, ranked No. 54 in the KenPom projection and, more importantly, No. 42 in the NET rankings, which has replaced the RPI as the NCAA’s primary tool for selecting NCAA Tournament teams. If it doesn’t start to receive Top 25 votes on Monday, it likely would the following week with wins over Duquesne and Davidson.

And the local media isn’t the only one beginning to feel this way.

“St. Bonaventure doesn’t have a talent like Andrew Nicholson, but this looks like it has a chance to be Mark Schmidt’s best team yet in Olean,” CBS’ Jon Rothstein tweeted after Bona had completed its comeback. “Plan accordingly.”

Given the nature of its wins, Bona has to be considered a top two or three — if not the best — team in the conference. The only one that might definitively be able to say otherwise is Saint Louis, which is nationally ranked (No. 25 in the AP poll), but has yet to play a league game this season due to COVID-19.

At-large aside, Bona, if it continues to play this way, should have as good a shot as any of winning the league tournament. An equally important task: avoiding some of the landmine losses that have clipped it in the past.

For now, though, these Bonnies do seem for real.

“As a coach, you just challenge the guys, and if you have character guys, guys that are competitors, they’re going to respond,” Schmidt said Wednesday. “The most important minutes of the second half were the first five minutes. It’s like, is the lead going to go from 15 to 25 or were we going to cut into it?

“And our guys responded. We couldn’t have played better (in the second half). To do (what we did) … it’s a credit to our guys. I’m really proud of what we did in the last 20 minutes.”

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