Bonnies seek to ‘rectify’ 2019 letdown as they gear up for A-10 final, likely NCAA bid

Jerry Sullivan

St. Bonaventure’s Dominick Welch dunks in the A-10 semifinal against St. Louis (Courtesy of St. Bonaventure athletics)

Don’t let them fool you. Elite athletes have long memories. In an honest moment, almost all of them would tell you that the tough losses hang around in their memories much longer than the rousing wins. 

The St. Bonaventure players remember. Two years ago, a team with three freshman starters made a surprising run to the Atlantic 10 championship game. On St. Patrick’s Day in Brooklyn, with an NCAA tourney berth on the line, they fell apart in the second half and lost to St. Louis, 55-53. 

“Oh, they remember everything,” Bonnies head coach Mark Schmidt said Tuesday. “They talked about it when we played St. Louis on Saturday.”

“It just wasn’t there that day,” said junior guard Dominick Welch, who scored only three points in the ’19 final. “But we had to put our foot down that it wasn’t going to happen again.”

Schmidt said his players learned from that experience, and it came in handy during a turbulent college hoop season in which COVID-19 rattled the Bonnies schedule and took the life of university president Dr. Dennis DePerro.

Last weekend, an older, wiser Bona squad got its revenge on St. Louis, pounding the Billikens, 71-53, to earn another shot in the A-10 championship game against VCU on Sunday afternoon in Dayton. (The game airs at 1 p.m. on News 4.)

This is a different year, a different team. The ’19 team was young and rebuilding from an NCAA year. This squad had high expectations and met them by winning the A-10 regular-season crown and starting 9-1 for the first time since 1971 — a year after Bob Lanier and the Final Four team. 

Schmidt said last summer that having a veteran team would help navigate the uncertainties of a pandemic. Their character was certainly tested. The Bonnies had six games canceled due to COVID-19 and didn’t play a game until Dec. 15. 

“I’ve been lucky in that we have experienced guys,” said Schmidt, who was named A-10 Coach of the Year on Wednesday. “I think we played two games on our schedule at the time we were supposed to play them. It was the first two league games, Rhode Island and Richmond. 

“Our kids were able to turn the page and not get caught up in, ‘Ah, we lost another game.’ They were able to understand how important the scouting report is. We have guys that were in the league and know what the other teams run. So we weren’t starting off from ground zero.”

St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt was named A-10 Coach of the Year. (Courtesy of St. Bonaventure athletics)

The Bonnies had a slight dip after getting to 9-1. They lost two of three (to VCU and St. Louis) and had three games canceled over a three-week period. But they hit their stride in late February and won five of six, including one-sided wins over Duquesne and St. Louis in the conference tourney. 

The Bonnies are 15-4 and considered a near-lock to earn an at-large NCAA berth, regardless of what happens on Sunday against Virginia Commonwealth. Schmidt said his team is playing its best basketball heading into the title game, and that includes the 9-1 start. 

“We have better chemistry,” Schmidt said. “We’re defending really well. We’re rebounding really well. Our offense is coming along. Our three-point shooting has gotten better as the season’s gone along. And we’re connected. We’ve got experienced guys and they’re connected defensively. They’re committed to each other.

“So yeah, we’re playing the best basketball we’ve played, and that’s what you want going into the postseason.”

It’s easy to be connected when you spend so much time together, on and off the court. Bona gets most of its time and production from five players, all juniors scoring in double figures: Kyle Lofton (14.2 ppg), Jaren Holmes (13.8), Jalen Adaway (12.4), Welch (11.6), and Osun Osunniyi (10.3).

Welch, who won the Allen Wilson Award as the top high school player in Western New York at Cheektowaga in 2017, is the guy Schmidt has in mind when talking about his team’s improved shooting over the season.

During one brutal three-game stretch in early January, Welch scored 8, 5 and 0 points. Then he scored 19 in a win against VCU, shooting 5-for-6 from three-point range. He has made 48 percent of his threes since that zero-point debacle and ranks 23rd in the nation in three-point percentage at 41.4.

Welch averages 11.6 points per game for the Bonnies. (Courtesy of St. Bonaventure athletics)

“It was me coming in here every day and getting shots up,” said the 6-5 Welch, who is second among A-10 guards with 6.2 rebounds a game. “Just getting my form down, trying to recognize my shooting form and working on that every day. Sometimes it’s just getting the feel of the basketball and seeing the ball go in. The hard work paid off.”

Hard work has a way of paying off under Schmidt, who is in his 14th season in Olean. The Bonnies had double-digit conference victories just once in 22 years when he showed up in 2007. They’ve now done it seven years in a row.

In 2012, Schmidt led them to their only A-10 tourney title. In 2016, they shared the league regular-season title and got snubbed the by NCAA. Two years later, they won 26 games and won a game in the NCAAs against UCLA. This year, they claimed their first outright A-10 championship. 

This is a vintage Schmidt squad, led by upperclassmen who have gotten inexorably better in their time at Olean and play smart, team basketball. 

“They have a good IQ, every one of them,” Schmidt said. “Especially the guys that play a lot. You can tell them in practice, ‘Here’s how we’re going to play this ball screen’ or whatever. It sinks in. You don’t have to emphasize it over and over again. They know the importance of it.”

Schmidt says it’s nice to have a defensive anchor who can erase your mistakes. Osunniyi, a 6-10 forward who blocked seven shots in the A-10 semifinal, is the latest in a line of big men who have made steady improvement under Schmidt. Osunniyi was named A-10 Defensive Player of the Year and second-team all-conference. Lofton made first team. 

Osunniyi is the main reason St. Bonaventure ranks sixth in the country in scoring defense (60.1 ppg) and eighth in defensive field-goal percentage (38.8). When the Bonnies are shooting well and Osunniyi is staying out of foul trouble and controlling the interior, they’re very tough to beat. 

“Oh, he’s one of the best defenders in the country,” Schmidt said. “He helps us tremendously. We do a good job on the ball, and we’re connected and try to keep the ball above the foul line. But he corrects all our mistakes. He has unbelievable timing, a talent to block shots.

“I always say offense is fickle. Your defense has to be the staple, defense and rebounding. When we were 9-1, we were shooting horribly from three, but our defense was keeping us in the game. Your defense gives you a chance to win every game.”

That will make Bona a tough draw in a first-round NCAA tourney game. Win or lose in the A-10 final, they’re probably going to the Big Dance.

Mark Schmidt is St. Bonaventure’s all-time winningest coach. (Courtesy of St. Bonaventure athletics)

“That’s the right word — probably,” said Schmidt, the winningest coach in Bona history. “You always go back to 2016. We had an RPI below 30 and were co-champs and didn’t get in. You always have that fear. Even in 2018, we wanted to control our own destiny. How do you do that? You win the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Now they can’t keep you out.

“You talk to a lot of alums, everybody’s on pins and needles. It’s not 100 percent sure we’re going to make it.”

Fans in Olean are also uneasy about their coach’s future. Schmidt, a native of North Attleborough, Mass., played at Boston College, which fired Jim Christian as head coach last month. Schmidt is considered as one of the top candidates for the job at his alma mater.

“My whole concentration is on our team,” Schmidt said, “which is where it should be. Everything that’s going to happen will happen afterwards. I love it here. I make a good living. There’s not a lot of pressure here. There’s a lot of positives.

“Here in Olean, basketball is everything. In the wintertime, this is what people do. And it’s a shame that they weren’t able to experience the season in the Reilly Center.”

Welch said it’s been unfortunate to play without fans in the Reilly Center. But he said the Bonnies cherished the simple joys of playing in a pandemic, and he figures the faithful fans have enjoyed the ride.

“It would be a really great accomplishment to be regular-season champs and conference tournament champions,” he said. “That would be amazing, like a dream come true. 

The Bonnies aren’t looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament. They want to win the A-10 title on Sunday, and take care of some business that they left unfinished two years ago. 

“I’m ready to rectify that,” Welch said. 

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