‘It’s A Dream’
Reinvigorated Bonnies Seek Spot In NIT Final
When St. Bonaventure takes the court against Xavier tonight in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York, the Bonnies will experience another peak in a roller-coaster season of highs and lows.
Head coach Mark Schmidt and his five senior starters are looking to turn a consolation prize into a celebration.
“Once we had the disappointing loss in D.C. against Saint Louis, we came home that night and I thought we would have an invitation to go to the NIT,” Schmidt said Saturday afternoon. “I brought the five seniors in, sat them down and let them know that we had the opportunity. … In 2016, when we got snubbed (for the NCAA Tournament), our guys weren’t really into it.”
“We didn’t play well at all,” Schmidt added. ” … I owed it to these five seniors to ask them if they wanted to do it, and it had to be unanimous.”
The Musketeers, former Atlantic 10 rivals of the Bonnies, stand in the way of a shot at a title in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.”
Xavier is currently 21-13 on the season, its 26th straight winning season, but mutually agreed to part ways with head coach Travis Steele following the Musketeers’ first NIT win over Cleveland State.
Seven-foot power forward Jack Nunge, a transfer from Iowa, leads Xavier in scoring (13.3 ppg) and rebounding (7.3 rpg).
“He’s both inside and outside, sometimes he’s more effective on the perimeter,” Schmidt said of Nunge. “It’s really hard to guard when a 5-man is screening and popping. He might be the best shooter on their team. … He’s had a heck of a year. He’s one of the reasons they’ve had so much success and one of the reasons they are so hard to guard.”
Sophomore Colby Jones averages 11.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, senior Nate Johnson averages 10.4 points per game and junior Zach Freemantle averages 10.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
“Jones is a guy that can play multiple positions. He’s a glue guy. Freemantle is a power forward that plays some 5. He’s strong and skilled, and can shoot the 3,” Schmidt said. “Nate Johnson is a 3-man that is really athletic and is a high-percentage 3-point shooter.”
Point guard Paul Scruggs (11.7 ppg, 4.1 apg) injured his knee during the second round against Florida.
“That’s really impressive for them to lose their coach after the first game and then have their starting point guard go down against Florida and still continue to win,” Schmidt said. ” … They are a tight team, they have really quality young men.”
The Bonnies, likewise, have five players who average in double figures for scoring. Jalen Adaway is averaging 15.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game; Jaren Holmes averages 13.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per game; and Kyle Lofton averages 12.7 points and 5.7 assist per game; while Dominick Welch (11.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Osun Osunniyi (11.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.9 bpg) round out the starting five.
“The goal when we first started this and got invited was to try and take it one game at a time,” Schmidt said. “We knew we needed to win three games to get to Madison Square Garden. Every kid grows up wanting to play in Madison Square Garden. It’s a dream.”
St. Bonaventure is 15-10 all-time in NIT games held at MSG dating back to 1951. Tuesday’s appearance will be the Bonnies’ first NIT appearance at the Garden since the 1977 championship game, which they won 94-91 over Houston. St. Bonaventure has won its past two games by a combined three points, offering memories of the 1977 title run when SBU won four games by a combined 11 points.
“The more support we have, the more it helps our guys,” Schmidt said when referencing Bona fans making the trip to New York. “We’re going to need it because we’re playing a really good team. If we can have that place packed with Bonaventure people and make it a home court, we have a better chance of succeeding.”
St. Bonaventure is matching up with the Musketeers for the first time since Xavier left the A-10 following the 2012-13 season. Bona won 11 of the first 15 meetings between the schools, but Xavier won 12 of the final 13 A-10 contests. The only victory the Bonnies secured over the final 13 was a 67-56 win in the 2012 A-10 championship game in Atlantic City to earn the first title in program history.
Schmidt was an assistant on the late Skip Prosser’s staff at Xavier from 1994-2001. St. Bonaventure’s all-time coaching wins leader told his players this year that the Musketeers’ 1999 trip to the NIT final four was “one of the greatest experiences of his life.”
“It’s been such a long time … it’s been 21 years. Those were great times with great teams and Coach Prosser,” Schmidt said. “Xavier has always been one of the power teams in the Atlantic 10 and when they left, they became one of the elite teams in the Big East.”
Texas A&M and Washington State will meet in tonight’s second semifinal at MSG. If the Bonnies were to advance to the final, it would be their first meeting ever with either of those programs.
“We’re here and now we’re not satisfied. The kids have accomplished one goal, to get to Madison Square Garden, now we want to win it,” Schmidt said. “We can’t win it until we win the first game. All of our attention and preparation is toward Xavier.”