OLEAN — Saint Louis descended upon the Reilly Center on Saturday as the Atlantic 10 leader in scoring defense but who really knew what to make of it? The Billikens throttled a bunch of marginal non-conference foes earlier in the season. Within the conference their numbers hadn’t been especially impressive, as evidenced by a high-scoring home court loss to Rhode Island, the A-10’s most challenged offensive unit.
On this day, however, the Billikens looked a lot like the team that stymied nationally ranked New Mexico back on Dec. 31. They paralyzed Bona on the perimeter and hounded their way to 14 steals. They built a 15-point halftime lead and withstood the second-half mayhem amidst an Alumni Weekend crowd of 4,839. And they scooted out of town with a 67-57 victory that helped justify their status as the No. 2 pick in the preseason conference rankings.
The Bonnies (9-10, 2-4) were starved for looks from behind the arc and managed maybe two of their 16 attempts with the rhythm of the offense. They turned the ball over on 19 occasions, oft times when driven to uncertainty by a harassing defense that wouldn’t budge. The offensive fluidity that characterized unforeseen wins at Temple and Saint Joseph’s vanished. Bona shot 21 of 38 from three-point range in those games and returned home to go 2 of 16.
“Our defense dictated the tempo of the game for us,” said Saint Louis coach Jim Crews. “Right from the get-go it was excellent. Our guys ran guys off the shot spots pretty good throughout the game and we were able to create some offense off our defense early and particularly late.”
Billiken guards Jordair Jett and Mike McCall in particular denied Bona its comfort zone. Matthew Wright attempted (and missed) one shot from three after going 8 for 10 on the road trip. Eric Mosley (45 percent from three) couldn’t shake free and shot 0 for 3. They combined to play only 34 minutes (21 by Wright, who had an injured foot) as Bona sought other ways to wage combat.
“I think it was more us not executing,” said Bona guard Charlon Kloof. “I think the coaching staff tried to prepare us for their pressure, how they were going to defend us and we didn’t go out and execute. If somebody overplayed us we gave up, took a step back. The execution part was not there today.”
Bona’s no different than anyone else in the 16-team Atlantic 10, one of the more competitive conferences in the country. Charlotte entered the day with a share of the lead and got smoked by 28 at George Washington. La Salle, pegged as a mid-range team before the season, knocked off Butler last week. Preseason pick Saint Joseph’s entered Saturday tied for 12th at 1-3. With that kind of parity teams can ill afford the kind of first half Bona had against the Billikens, shooting 7 of 22 and falling behind by 15.
“It’s not even one bad half it’s maybe 12 minutes,” said Bona coach Mark Schmidt. “It’s a great league. You got teams in this league trying to win the national title. They’re not trying to win the Atlantic 10, they’re trying to win the national title. We understand that. And in order for us to be successful we got to play our ‘A’ game.”
From the outset Saint Louis (14-5, 3-2) confused and bewildered the Bonnies with its overplays on the defensive end. The Billikens rarely yielded an uncontested look from behind the arc and it showed in Bona’s 0-for-7 first-half shooting from long range. Without the trey at its disposal, the Bonnies had to create at the offensive end and didn’t fare well in that regard. Saint Louis produced eight steals, scored 11 points off turnovers and sailed away to a 38-23 halftime advantage.
Given its offensive struggles, the onus was on Bona to spark an attack through its defense. That didn’t materialize either, at least not after the opening minutes. The Billikens went 15 of 32 from the field in the first half, including 4 of 8 from three, and picked up four offensive rebounds while limiting Bona to a mere one.
The Bonnies found success in the low post and through dribble-penetration for parts of the second half but by then the margin for error had dwindled to almost nothing. Turnovers did them in after they had the deficit down to six with 14:05 left and seven with 3:36 to go.
Demitrius Conger topped Bona with 15 points and nine rebounds but also had five turnovers. Kloof and Chris Johnson added 11 points apiece. Saint Louis got a game-high 18 points and eight boards out of forward Dwayne Evans.