OLEAN – It was a steal.
A Matthew Wright swipe and layup inside the final 30 seconds turned impending defeat into victory Saturday night as St. Bonaventure rallied past UB, 82-79, in a wild Big 4 matchup before 4,485 at the Reilly Center.
UB (2-7) owned a one-point lead when it called timeout with 50.4 seconds left and 23 on the shot clock. The Bulls never got off another attempt. Wright stole a Tony Watson pass and laid in the go-ahead basket with 24.6 seconds left. Then Demitrius Conger thwarted Jarod Oldham’s pass inside to Javon McCrea, resulting in a Bona free throw at the other end with 1.1 seconds to go. UB failed to connect on a long inbounds pass, and Bona has its fifth straight win of the series.
The Bonnies (4-2) are just about as experienced as it gets in nail-biters. This was their fifth straight game decided by five points or less and victory No. 3 of that stretch.
UB looked nothing like the offensively confounded team that managed just 39 points – the lowest total since 2003 – in Wednesday home loss to Temple. The Bulls cashed 13 threes in 24 attempts and led 78-75 on a Watson three with 2:58 remaining. But turnovers, their early-season nemesis, returned when it matter most. A Demitrius Conger steal and dunk with 1:02 remaining closed Bona’s deficit to one and set up the final frenetic minute.
“We got to sustain it for the whole 40 minutes,” Oldham said. “Crunch time, we got to be ready to shoot the ball and that wasn’t the case tonight.”
Oldham led UB with a career-high 20 points while Watson added 15, McCrea 13 and Will Regan 10. Bona also put four players in doubles led by Conger with 20. Chris Johnson had 14, Wright 11 and Charlon Kloof 10.
UB actually shot better from behind the arc (54 percent) than from the free-throw line (12 of 23, 52 percent). Bona went to the line 38 times and made 22, just 58 percent. The Bonnies scored 21 points off 19 UB turnovers while the Bulls countered with 11 points on Bona’s nine giveaways.
Bona’s film-room familiarity with UB’s offensive tendencies aided it down the stretch.
“We watched a lot of tape and we emphasize a lot of jabbing at the ball if your man doesn’t have the ball to kind of stop the driver,” Wright said. “On the last play I helped a little earlier and it forced him to make a decision in mid-air and I was able to steal the ball.”
A Regan free throw to open the second half gave UB its first advantage at 40-39. Bona surged back and led by 46-41 on two Kloof free throws, but the Bulls wouldn’t go away. Undeterred by a miss and a Youssou Ndoye block, Regan powered his way to a basket on his third shot of a possession, drew Ndoye’s fourth foul and converted the free throw to bring UB within 50-48 with 14:42 left.
Soon, the see-saw went into motion. The lead changed hands three times in 33 seconds, with a Watson three putting UB on top, 58-56. When Bona drew even Oldham answered with another three off sharp perimeter ball movement with Watson.
Bona answered, UB countered, The Bulls threw a hook, the Bonnies answered with an uppercut. When the final media timeout came with 3:49 left neither team had led by more than three since the very early moments of the second half.
UB went to its bench very early in the game, first when Corey Raley-Ross turned it over twice in a blink, and then when McCrea picked up his first foul just less than two minutes in. UB’s gamble in protecting its leading scorer paid off. McCrea left with the Bulls down three and returned with the deficit at four.
The threat of a blowout was at hand when McCrea picked up foul No. 2 with nine minutes remaining and Bona on the verge of building a double-digit advantage. Again, UB hung tough and then some. A Watson bomb that appeared to come after the buzzer was counted as good, lifting the Bulls into a 39-39 intermission deadlock.