OLEAN – When teams in the Atlantic 10 are done beating up on each other, there’s no telling who or how many will go on to the NCAA Tournament. Two or three that believe they’re deserving might well go without a bid. And that’s why La Salle let out a huge sigh of relief after its 69-66 overtime victory over St. Bonaventure on Wednesday night in the Reilly Center.
The Explorers have been one of the A-10’s surprise teams this season, not so much because they’re in title contention but because they’ve beaten Butler and VCU to get there. Still, they entered with six losses overall and three of those in conference. Dropping one to St. Bonaventure (11-12, 4-6 A-10) wouldn’t have reflected kindly on their RPI while diminishing their reputation as a “bubble” team if that’s what it comes to.
But this is the way it is in the A-10, perhaps the most competitive conference in the country. Barring a run more miraculous than last year’s, the Bonnies won’t be returning to the NCAAs, although – as they proved again – they can hang with the conference’s best, particularly when a crowd of 3,521 is fueling their adrenaline.
La Salle blew a first-half lead of 16 points and an 11-point advantage with just under seven minutes remaining, but persevered on three Tyrone Garland free throws inside the final 14 seconds of overtime. Down three, Bona had a chance to tie when Eric Mosley was fouled behind the arc with 2.8 remaining, but he missed the first two shots and made the one he tried to miss.
Garland also was trying to miss when he made the second of two foul shots with 1.8 seconds left. Matthew Wright threw a three-quarter court inbounds pass to Demitrius Conger, who had a good look for the tie from 25 feet but fired off the rim.
“Felt good,” Conger said.
Bona is now 1-4 in conference at home compared to 3-2 on the road, but it would be wrong to think they’ve played their best basketball away from the Reilly Center. All four of the home losses are to teams tied for either first or second in the conference standing.
“St. Bonaventure beat Temple at home and they beat St. Joe’s at home so a lot of people don’t win at Temple and St. Joe’s so we already knew what we were going up against,” La Salle guard Ramon Galloway said. “Every day in the Atlantic 10 it’s great teams. There’s not one team in the Atlantic 10 that’s sweet. From the first team to the 16th team, everybody’s tough.”
“We did what we needed to do to have a chance to win but at the end we didn’t get that stop and we didn’t make that shot to win it,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said.
“It’s a painful loss,” said Bona guard Chris Johnson. “Just knowing the importance of the game and seeing how hard our team fought to get back into it, just knowing that we were one possession away from taking it hurts even more.”
Galloway had a game-high 23 points for the Explorers while Garland scored 16 off the bench. Bona put four players in double figures, led by Mosley with 15. Youssou Ndoye added 14, Johnson 13 and Conger had 11.
Bona led 63-62 in overtime on a Johnson layup but left Tyreek Duren open for a wide open three he cashed with 1:45 left. The Explorers wouldn’t trail thereafter. Duren broke a 65-65 deadlock by making one of two free throws with 46 seconds to go in OT, and Johnson was denied on a drive into the lane at the other end before Garland made his free throws.
Down 11 at intermission, Bona began pounding it inside with success, a tactic that finally opened up the perimeter. A run keyed by Conger and Ndoye gave Mosley space behind the arc, and his second of two threes gave Bona its first lead at 43-42 with 12:21 to go.
The run captured La Salle’s attention and from there the Explorers got serious. They put aside the three-point shots that weren’t falling and set their minds on penetration. Big man Steve Zack scored on a three-point play and nailed another field goal in the paint, launching a 12-3 burst that included six points from the foul line.
Again, Bona clawed back, tying the score at 57 on a Johnson steal and layup. The teams were tied again at 59 before two Zach free throws with 51.9 seconds left put La Salle back ahead. Bona forced the extra session on Mosley’s 20-footer with 22.2 seconds left. La Salle did not get off a final shot. The Bonnies shot 12 of 24 in the second half to just 6 of 21 for the Explorers.
“We defended and did a decent job in the second half taking care of the basketball,” Schmidt said. “We just couldn’t close it out. Give them credit. They’re a good team.”