OLEAN – Mark Schmidt didn’t bother trying to dance around the questions after the game because they’re not going away. Andrew Nicholson was his best player last season before landing in the NBA, so let’s not kid ourselves into believing that St. Bonaventure is somehow better off without him.
Nicholson was the most dominant forward to come through Olean in decades, a player who scored from any position on the floor while everybody else kicked back and enjoyed the show. He led them into the NCAA tournament. He was a first-round pick. He was their best player since Bob Lanier.
The Bonnies aren’t better without him, but they are better-balanced this season now that Nicholson has jumped to the Orlando Magic. Schmidt merely needed to scroll down the scoring sheet after a dramatic 82-79 victory over UB for evidence that the Bonnies can win their share of games in the Atlantic 10 in the post-Nicholson era.
Demitrius Conger had a season-high 20 points, including two critical free throws with 1.1 seconds remaining. Chris Johnson finished with 14. Matthew Wright made a key steal and finished with 11 points. Charlon Kloof was in double figures. Marquise Simmons and Eric Mosely had nine points apiece.
“We don’t have that inside presence that we had last year,’’ Schmidt said. “You look at our four leading scorers [Saturday], and it was all perimeter guys. That’s how we’re going to win. We’re going to do it collectively. One guy is not going to do it every game for us. It’s going to be a different guy every night. And that’s what’s happened.’’
OK, so their names don’t exactly roll off your tongue. The loud and proud student section in the Reilly Center would be hard-pressed to name their starting five. But the Bonnies can become a dangerous team if they compete in conference games the way they did for most of the game against UB.
It starts with Schmidt, who signed a five-year contract extension over the summer. He was masterful in rotating his point guards, maximizing quality minutes from his big men, getting his team to share the ball and getting everyone involved. Conger just so happened to take his turn atop the score sheet Saturday night.
UB didn’t figure to offer a serious challenge considering how it had been playing this season, a transition year. The Bulls couldn’t put the ball in the ocean from a rowboat in an embarrassing loss to Temple in which they scored 39 points. UB had that many in the first half against Bona.
The same team that couldn’t shoot straight suddenly couldn’t miss. At one point in the second half, UB was draining so many three-pointers that Bona was begging to give up a layup. But UB was capable of making just enough mistakes to get beat and none was bigger than Tony Watson’s errant pass with 30 seconds remaining.
It certainly wasn’t the best game ever played. At times, it was ugly. It’s hard to imagine a team that made 22 of 38 free throws won the contest at the foul line. UB was only 12 of 23 from the line. The Bulls should have backed up to the three-point line, where they finished 13 for 24.
Wright, who had flashes of brilliance earlier in the game before falling quiet, stepped in front of Watson’s pass and finished the play with a soft layup to give Bona an 80-79 lead. Conger made two free throws in succession – in this game, it passed for a shocking development – that ensured the win.
Johnson has emerged this season, his story one of many coming from around the world. He grew up in hockey-loving North Preston, Nova Scotia, played on the Canadian Junior National team, spent two years in Texas, committed to Liberty University but instead concentrated on – get this one – academics.
The 6-foot-5 swingman averaged 6.6 points per game and made one Division I start before this season. He’s leading Bona in scoring at 16.1 points per game through six games this season. He’s one of several players in their little melting pot who have helped overcome Nicholson’s departure.
Kloof was born in South America via the Netherlands with a pit stop in the Canary Islands. He played internationally before arriving in the United States. Wright, who made the key steal late in the game, is from Toronto. Youssou Ndoye is from Senegal. The 7-footer altered the final in-bounds pass after Conger’s free throws.
They took turns. They survived against UB. And they’re learning to survive without Nicholson
“That’s one of the strengths of this team,’’ Conger said. “On any given night, somebody could have a good night. It’s not like you’re keying on one person, someone who’s going to score on that particular night.’’