Sullivan: Jesse Fleming appears to have Bona women turning the corner

Jerry Sullivan

Raise your hand if you thought Jesse Fleming’s St. Bonaventure women’s basketball team would have the exact same record as the men’s team at the close of 2021. (Courtesy of Craig Melvin/St. Bonaventure Athletics)

Jesse Fleming admits he reached a low point last spring. The St. Bonaventure women’s basketball team had suffered another losing season, the fifth in a row since Fleming succeeded Jim Crowley as the head coach. 

The Bonnies hadn’t merely lost, they’d lost badly. Over Fleming’s first five years, they dropped 102 games. They had not reached double-digit wins in any season or won more than five conference games in the Atlantic 10. 

“I was probably as low as I could be,” Fleming said from his office on Wednesday. “We had some players leave. It’s been five years. It was like, I’ve tried everything. I’m not having success after having success as an assistant. 

“I was kind of at the end of my rope.”

So, Fleming called his mentor and confidant, Jim Crowley, who had given him his start in the profession as a student manager and later a Bona assistant. If anyone could relate, it was Crowley, who had suffered almost precisely the same failures in his first five years as the Bona women’s coach before turning it around to become the most successful leader in program history. 

Crowley, who left Olean to coach the women at Providence College (which has been a struggle) told Fleming he was one of the best basketball coaches he’d ever been around, a hard worker and fine tactician who did things the right way. Things were bound to turn around soon.

“He kind of gave me the pep talk,” Fleming recalled. “It got me back on track. That was big for me to hear, him reminding me ‘Hey, you can do this.’”

Crowley also reminded Fleming that it was about more than diagramming plays. It was about team chemistry and relationships, something Fleming valued but had let slide at times during his first five frustrating years.

“It was something I honestly hadn’t spent enough time with,” Fleming said. “It was always, ‘What’s the best play to run and defensive coverage and this and that.’ I hadn’t dedicated enough time to the team part. The whole summer was kind of an immersive team building.”

Fleming says the Bonnies forged a stronger collective bond during the offseason. He gives a lot of credit to his assistants: Amber East, Ryan Phillips and Didi Simmons, who arrived last May from Seton Hall.

“I do think right now we have a really tight-knit group,” Fleming said. “They’re doing it for each other and that’s what we’ve been preaching.”

Evidently, it’s working. The Bonnies are 8-3 heading into their Atlantic 10 opener at noon on Saturday in the Reilly Center. Raise your hand if you thought the Bona women would have the exact same record as the men’s team at the close of 2021. 

With a renewed emphasis on team chemistry, Jesse Fleming has the St. Bonaventure’s women’s basketball team back on track. (Courtesy of Craig Melvin/St. Bonaventure Athletics)

The Bonnies will be looking to win a fourth straight game for the first time since Crowley led them to the NCAAs in 2015-16. Fleming said he’s more excited that his team has won three straight road games for the first time in his six-year tenure. Two years ago, they were winless outside the Reilly Center. 

They’re 7-0 in games decided by eight points or less, a sign that the Bonnies are making the crucial plays and stops late in games. The defense has been solid. They’re currently holding opponents to 35.3 percent shooting from the field, which ranks 41st in the country in Division I.

“We talk a lot about taking pressure off yourself by investing in the success of your teammate,” Fleming said. “If you’re self-absorbed, you’re just going to be worried about yourself, so the pressure affects you more. We haven’t been perfect with it by any means, but there has been a change.

“On defense, we’re taking a lot more charges,” he said. “You do that for your teammate because your teammate got blown by. That means you’re going to leave your guy and go help. In the past, we might have stayed glued to our guy and given up a big layup late. Now it’s like, I’m going to go do that for my teammate.”

It helps to have a teammate who is a veteran leader and a star. Asianae Johnson, a 5-8 senior guard, leads Bona in scoring (15.9 ppg), a career high. She’s also averaging career highs in minutes (33) and assists (3.6), while shooting 45 percent from the field and 76 from the line.

During the recent three-game winning streak, Johnson was even more dynamic, averaging 17 points, 6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 3.3 steals and 1.7 blocks.

“I honestly feel coming into this season we all were hanging on a thread,” Johnson said. “Nobody really knew what to expect. Were we going to win games? It was really down to how hard we worked, how much effort we put in, how much time we spent when it came to basketball, to film and practice.

“So, nobody knew. But I feel that once we got on the court together and won those first five games it was like, ‘OK, we have something here.’”

Asianae Johnson, a 5-8 senior guard, leads Bona in scoring (Courtesy of St. Bonaventure Athletics)

Fleming is certainly glad to have Johnson, a Brooklyn native who made third-team all-Atlantic 10 a year ago. Johnson said she’d had several schools reach out to see if she was interested in transferring to better programs. But she wanted to remain with the coach and the school that believed in her. 

“She has not missed a day in the gym, other than some pandemic stuff, for four years,” Fleming said. “That’s a kid I have undying loyalty to, because we haven’t had success and she could be at a high major somewhere. 

“She stuck with us. She just works. It’s not about her, it’s about getting better every single day. She accepts criticism. She’s become a better leader. I think it’s a body of work, years of getting better and now she’s reaping the rewards of that.”

Johnson said Bona was an ideal place for her to play in college, though it’s a far cry from New York City.

“It’s not loud, no tall landscapes,” she said. “But the new scenery definitely helped me to learn a new work ethic, a different mentality, because the only thing you really can do is focus on basketball and school here.”

Olean became a home for Johnson, who was literally homeless for five years while growing up in Brooklyn. She, her mother and younger brother shuttled between her grandmother and the city shelter system before finally settling into their own apartment when Asianae was 16.

Johnson has an abiding love for the St. Bonaventure family. Her coach feels the same way. Fleming came of age in Olean, where he went to school for four years and realized his dream of being a college basketball coach.

Fleming grew up on a farm in Guilford, New York, a town in Chenango County northeast of Binghamton. He went to St. Bonaventure to study journalism, with the hope of becoming a sportswriter. But his real dream was coaching. 

He spent four years as a student manager under Crowley. After his junior and senior years, he slept in the locker room at the Reilly Center for two months while working a maintenance job and helping Crowley with scouting and recruiting.

“Crowley gave me a key to the Reilly Center,” Fleming said. “I would sleep in the locker room, work the 6 a.m. maintenance job until 3, then work three or four hours in the office, getting experience recruiting and filing and all that stuff. Then I’d go work the camps in July.

“I had a loaf of white bread and a thing of peanut butter and jelly. I grew up on a dairy farm. So, my parents said 6 o’clock was kind of late to get up. They could out-work me any day of the week.”

They must be very diligent workers, because their son was tireless in those days. Crowley remembers Fleming staying in the gym until 2 a.m., then going to watch replays of Mountain West games. 

“It’s all he’s wanted to do,” Crowley said. 

After graduating from Bona in 2005, Fleming briefly took a junior college job in Laurinberg, N.C. But Crowley called to offer him an assistant’s job. He told Fleming they would probably be fired after one year, but at least he would have something on his resume. 

St. Bonaventure had lost 96 games in Crowley’s first five seasons. Sound familiar? Fleming took the job. They lost another 19 games in 2005-06. Then the program took off, posting six straight winning seasons over the next six years, culminating with a 31-4 season and a trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2016.

Fleming left Olean the year before the Bonnies reached the Sweet 16. He spent a year at Stony Brook, then four at Bowling Green, where he became associate head coach for a team that won 76 games, including one MAC title, and made two trips to the women’s NIT. 

When Crowley left for Providence after reaching the NCAAs for a second time, Fleming was a natural successor, a man who understood the culture and had been a part of a great run in the women’s program.

“I was sitting on the bench when we were having success here,” Fleming said. “That’s why I put it on my shoulders. I’m not one of those people who sit and complain and say, ‘It’s our budget or this or that.’ No, get better, recruit harder. It’s on me and our program to take advantage of the opportunities we have.”

Bona hired Joe Manhertz as its new athletic director a few months ago. Aside from the men’s basketball team, the athletic department has been filled with chronic failure. Manhertz has said the fundamentals for success are there. He’s looking to raise money and enhance resources while evaluating the department. 

“He’s right now in the evaluation period,” Fleming said, “Where we’re funded, how we’re supported, what’s the realistic goal, where we fit in the league … I give him credit for not just coming in and saying we got to change everything.”

Crowley was asked what he would tell Manhertz about why he should have faith in Fleming’s ability to turn things around. He said plenty of people told Steve Watson he should get rid of him when Watson was hired as Bona’s athletic director in 2006. 

“Instead, he supported me and stuck with me,” Crowley said, “and things worked out pretty well.” 

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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