SALLE12

St. Bonaventure’s Osun Osunniyi (right) dunks the basketball against La Salle’s Clifton Moore (left) during the second half of an Atlantic 10 men’s basketball game at Tom Gola Arena in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

It could have gone another way.

And for others, it has.

Admittedly, it’s a cherry-picked statistic to support this claim, but since this one, too, involves a road game at La Salle, we’ll go with it:

A year ago, the Saint Louis men’s basketball team, after a 7-1 start, endured a COVID-related pause similar to the one St. Bonaventure just went through, going 34 days between games. And when it finally managed to take the floor again, a group that previously had the look of an NCAA Tournament team struggled, falling at home to Dayton in its first game back before losing to, that’s right, an eventual 12th place La Salle team, 82-75, at Tom Gola Arena.

Bona, even with quality teams in “normal” years, had fallen victim to the La Salle road trap before. In 2016, remember, it lost to the last-place Explorers amid an NCAA run, nearly ending their at-large chances before pulling off an upset of No. 15 Dayton three days later. Just two years ago, with its current four-year senior trio, it answered a home loss to Duquesne with another head-scratching loss to a lower-tier La Salle team.

ON TUESDAY, it would have had more of an excuse than ever to lose at La Salle, having not played in 25 days while only recently returning from another team-wide bout with the coronavirus. And when Louisville transfer Josh Nickelberry drained a 3-pointer to give the Explorers a 54-42 lead with 13:50 remaining, it looked like the Bonnies were on their way to just that:

Another La Salle landmine.

Only unlike Saint Louis last January, that potentially season-swinging setback never occurred (the Billikens did start winning again, but were never quite the same team the rest of the way). Instead, no matter how it came, even if it needed five extra minutes, Bona accomplished what might have been even more difficult than we expected, at this high a level, following a month of inactivity: It won.

Much like the handful of others in which Bona needed to “escape” more than anything else, this one wasn’t without its concerns.

COACH Mark Schmidt’s team again looked sluggish early on, again fell behind by double digits before embarking upon another second-half surge. Its defense, once more, wasn’t quite what we’d seen from this team last year.

Perhaps most alarming, and the component that had fans most stirred up on social media, was the age-old story about minutes. Although, after Tuesday, especially, that was probably warranted.

Bona’s starters played an astonishing 222 of 225 minutes, called upon to remain on the floor to give it the best chance of completing the comeback. In total, it received no points, two fouls and one missed shot from its bench. That led to not only the continued concerns about overtaxing those starters — and asking too much of them after such a lengthy layoff — but also that Bona might, again, not have much of a bench to rely on, even after the concerted efforts to revamp it in the offseason (though one of its top reserves, Linton Brown, was out due to health and safety protocol).

Those questions, of course, are valid.

But for right now, the bigger takeaway is that Bona is where it wanted to be following its 25-day hiatus: 1-0 in conference play, in possession of its first road win of the season and without a sagging loss to a La Salle team that ranks No. 279 in the NET. And, as it finally turns its attention to league play, its resume — no matter how many less-than-convincing victories it has — remains in solid standing.

TWO OF the Bonnies’ Charleston Classic triumphs have since jumped to Quadrant 1 wins, as both Marquette (No. 41) and Boise State (48) have cracked the NET Top 50, with Clemson (No. 57) not far behind. Additionally, their one bad loss, Virginia Tech drubbing aside, has gone from a devastating “Q4” setback to a Q3, as Northern Iowa has vaulted to No. 117 in the NET (well above the 161-353 “Q4” threshold).

Bona is back to moving in the right direction, and can make even more headway with games against VCU (at home this Friday in a massive ESPN2 showcase tilt) and Dayton on the horizon. Its hope is that with the La Salle game now under its belt, it can also take another step toward returning to normal.

“You think you’re through it and another variant comes up, so it’s life,” said Schmidt recently, when asked to assess the nearly month-long grip that COVID-19 had on all of college basketball.

“That’s how it is; it’s not always smooth, there’s gonna be a lot of adversity, and it’s how you deal with it. We’re trying to deal with it in a positive way and hopefully everybody can get through this and we can have a season where everybody’s playing.”

(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at jbutler@oleantimesherald.com)

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