Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Chance To Dance

Throughout the month of March, every college basketball game takes on added importance.
March is college basketball's time to shine

Every shot, every minute and every half are magnified. Dreams can be made or shattered during a single possession. Individual players can become legendary -- or dubious -- depending on the situation.

While some teams carry national championship hopes and expectations of reaching the Final Four throughout the season, other schools simply want to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Winning the conference and receiving an automatic bid to the Big Dance can do wonders for revenue, recruiting and positive feelings among the fan base.

 St. Bonaventure hadn't appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2000

Throughout its history, the St. Bonaventure men's basketball program has had some claims to fame. Led by future Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, the Bonnies (then known as the Brown Indians) reached the Final Four in 1970. Overall, St. Bonaventure has had five NCAA Tournament appearances, the last being in 2000.

Bob Lanier led St. Bonaventure to the Final Four in 1970 (Photo courtesy: St. Bonaventure University)

Since then, scandal had taken a toll on the Bonnies.

In 2003, it was found that junior college transfer Jamil Terrell was allowed to join the program, despite only having a welding certificate and not an associate's degree. The controversy cost the program three years' probation, and led to the firings of the university president, basketball coaching staff and athletic director.

Academic scandal surrounding Jamil Terrell crippled the Bonnies' program (St. Bonaventure)

During the next four seasons, St. Bonaventure had a record of 24-88, leading many fans to wonder if they'd ever fully recover from the scandal's fallout.

St. Bonaventure drew a #4 seed for the 2012 Atlantic 10 Tournament

Heading into the 2012 Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament, few believed that the Bonnies had a good chance of winning it all. The #1-seeded Temple Owls were the only nationally-ranked team in the conference, while the St. Louis Billikens and Xavier Musketeers were expected to threaten for the title as well.

St. Bonaventure entered the tournament as the #4 seed, finishing the regular season with a 10-6 conference record and a 17-11 overall mark. To reach the NCAA's, the Bonnies would have to win three games in three consecutive days.

 Winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament was the Bonnies' only hope of reaching the NCAA's

As the tournament got under way at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, there was meager support for the Brown-and-White. You could practically count the number of St. Bonaventure fans in attendance as they faced the #5 seed, St. Joseph's.

Led by A-10 Offensive Player of the Year Andrew Nicholson, the Bonnies slipped past the Hawks, 71-68, advancing to a Saturday semifinal matchup with the Massachusetts Minutemen, which upset Temple in the quarterfinal round.

 Andrew Nicholson's 25 points and 10 rebounds led the Bonnies past St. Joseph's

UMass -- the tournament's #8 seed -- did all it could to limit Nicholson, double-teaming the 6'9" senior forward from Canada at every opportunity. Swingman Demitrius Conger stepped up, however, scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in an 84-80 victory. The Bonnies were suddenly one win away from an improbable conference championship.

 Demitrius Conger had a big game for the Bonnies in the semifinals

On Sunday, March 11th, St. Bonaventure faced Xavier, with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line. It was all-or-nothing for the Bonnies -- win, and they're a part of the Big Dance for the first time in 12 years. A loss would likely send them to the less-attractive National Invitation Tournament.

The Atlantic 10 championship trophy and NCAA Tournament automatic bid awaited the winner
Unlike Friday's quarterfinal round, the majority of those in attendance for Sunday's championship game were pulling for the Bonnies. Several buses left at 4 am to make the roughly 7-hour trek from the St. Bonaventure campus in Olean, New York to Atlantic City.

St. Bonaventure fans filled the student section and other parts of Boardwalk Hall

The St. Bonaventure student section was packed and ready to party, with numerous signs expressing their support. Even those without a rooting interest were pulling for the underdog Bonnies, which lost their only other meeting with Xavier this season, 77-64 in mid-January.

With a crowd of 6,101 looking on, the #4-seed Bonnies and #3 Musketeers tipped off.

 The opening tip-off

For the first few minutes, the two teams felt each other out with conservative play. Perhaps it was nerves, or maybe it was fatigue from playing games throughout the weekend. After five minutes, St. Bonaventure and Xavier were tied 5-5.

 Early stages of the A-10 Championship in Atlantic City

Following the game's first media timeout, the Bonnies went on a run that established momentum for the rest of the 1st half. Andrew Nicholson nailed back-to-back three-pointers, causing most of Boardwalk Hall to roar in approval. Eric Mosley followed with a three of his own. Suddenly, the team that had relied on interior play to win its first two A-10 Tournament games was hitting shots from the perimeter.

 Nicholson's outside shooting helped set an early tone

The Bonnies made 48% of their shots from the floor in the 1st half, and hit 5-of-11 from three-point range. Nicholson -- a potential 1st round NBA draft pick this summer -- was his usual dominant self, scoring 12 points. The St. Bonaventure bench players also played a major role, outscoring Xavier's bench 14-2. It all added up to a 37-24 halftime lead.

Solid team basketball helped the Bonnies to a 13-point halftime advantage

In the stands, Bonnies' fans were starting to believe that this was their day. Those clad in brown would cheer a little louder with each made shot and every defensive stop. Those wearing navy blue for Xavier, meanwhile, were quiet and subdued, seemingly resigned to hoping for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

 Bonnies' fans show their pride during the A-10 Championship

The Bonnies would carry their momentum into the early part of the 2nd half, building a 17-point lead at one point. Sitting at the top of Section 220, my friend Phil and I were amazed by St. Bonaventure's performance. They were truly feeding off the crowd and outhustling the Musketeers.

 The Bonnies looked determined to earn a NCAA berth

Xavier showed that it had some fight left, however. Junior guard Mark Lyons helped lead the charge, scoring 7 consecutive points to bring the Musketeers within 8. There was still 14:14 remaining in the 2nd half, and many started wondering if St. Bonaventure was losing their killer instinct.

With 8:02 left in the 2nd half, Xavier cut the Bonnies' lead to 50-45. Most of those inside Boardwalk Hall rose to their feet, cheering for different reasons. The St. Bonaventure fans were trying to rally their team, while those supporting the Musketeers urged their team to sustain the momentum.

 Xavier tries to plot a comeback

In the end, however, it was the Bonnies' day to dance. Playing a stout defense while making their free throws down the stretch, St. Bonaventure outscored Xavier 17-11 over the final 8 minutes.

 Tough defense kept St. Bonaventure in front
As those last seconds ticked away on the scoreboard clock, the Bonnies started to raise their arms in celebration, while those wearing brown-and-white in the stands started jumping up-and-down, high-fiving and hugging each other.

 Bonnies' fans were starting to sense the moment

When the clock reached :00.0, the scoreboard read 67-56 in favor of St. Bonaventure, giving the school the Atlantic 10 basketball championship and its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 12 years. A loud, sustained cheer from the Bonnies' faithful echoed inside Boardwalk Hall.

 Atlantic 10 Tournament Champions

The St. Bonaventure players hugged and received their A-10 Championship t-shirts at center court as boisterous chants of "S-B-U! S-B-U!" and "Let's Go Bonas!" rang throughout the arena.

For those who made the long bus ride from Olean that morning, the next sequence must have felt like a dream. St. Bonaventure head coach Mark Schmidt was handed the Atlantic 10 championship trophy, the Bonnies' first since joining the conference in 1979.

The trophy presentation

By now, most of the 6,101 in attendance had headed for the exits, but those who stayed continued their passionate cheers as every player and coach climbed a ladder to cut down the nets. Many players would cut small snippets of the net as personal souvenirs, while also working to remove it from the basketball rim.

The Bonnies cut down the nets

As the scissors cut through the nylon fabric for the last time, a final cheer was let loose by Bonnies' fans. Now they could focus on the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, and find out where they would be headed next on this college basketball journey.

Head coach Mark Schmidt celebrates

Part of the appeal of March Madness is that teams can come from out of nowhere to capture one's heart. In the case of St. Bonaventure, few believed they had a real chance at reaching the Big Dance as recently as last Friday. Three days and three games later, they were Atlantic 10 Champions and rewarded with a matchup against Florida State in Nashville on Friday.

Whether the Bonnies continue their success in the NCAA Tournament is immaterial. For the team and their fans, it has already been a magical ride.

 Next stop: NCAA Tournament

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