OLEAN — Dion Wright dunked the ball for his final basket of the second half when St. Bonaventure’s loud and proud student section rushed the court knowing the outcome was no longer in doubt. The Bonnies had sealed their 78-65 victory over 21st-ranked UMass, a win that was a long time coming.
Two seconds remained on the clock, which meant Mark Schmidt was still coaching. He was imploring his players to keep their composure. He was ordering the students off the court. It was as if Schmidt still feared the worst, that the Minutemen would somehow find a way to steal the game in the final moment.
Finally, after checking the scoreboard once more, after seeing the clock, after realizing UMass was headed for the exits with slumped shoulders, after canvassing the court one more time to be certain, the seventh-year head coach allowed himself to smile.
“You always think the worst,” Schmidt said. “With two seconds, you know that there are no 13-point plays.”
It may not have been the biggest victory in Schmidt’s coaching career. Let’s not forget that the Bonnies knocked off Xavier two years ago to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament and reach the NCAAs. But there was a sense Wednesday night that Schmidt had validated the argument that he’s a terrific coach on the rise.
How long will it be before he outgrows his university?
His work in recent years has been nothing short of remarkable when stacking additional obstacles atop the usual challenges of any program. He’s been forced to scour under rocks and into crevices, stretching every available resource in an effort to find players who can keep the Bonnies respectable in the Atlantic 10.
The Bonnies’ 13-8 record speaks little to the effectiveness of their coach. It’s not as if top players are flocking to Olean. In fact, assuming they heard of St. Bonaventure, most couldn’t tell you where the university was located. Recruits who fail to sign with Top 25 programs often work their way down to teams that can compete against them.
Eventually, they fall to him.
“We’ve been able to compete with a lower budget than everybody. We can’t go into the schools for that top 100 player or that top 150 player,” Schmidt said. “I give my coaches credit for finding players that are under the radar. We’ve had a little chip on our shoulder. We’re that little school up north. We don’t want to be competitive. We want to win.”
It’s a matter of time when – not if – a better team from a bigger conference comes to its senses and makes a pitch for Schmidt. He would figure to be a strong candidate at Boston College, his alma mater, if it decides a change is in order. The Eagles are 6-14 overall and second-last with a 2-5 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
St. Bonaventure had lost 24 straight games over 14 seasons to ranked teams. Knocking off UMass was a great win, certainly, but it wasn’t a major upset. Bona was favored at home in part because the Reilly Center can be such a cruel venue for visitors.
The Bonnies nearly ended the streak earlier this month, but after building a 13-point lead in the second half at UMass, ranked 19th at the time, they crumbled in the final minutes. Finishing games has been their biggest challenge. They lost by six at No. 24 Saint Louis. They lost at the buzzer to Duquesne last week.
Not this time.
Before the game, Schmidt had scribbled 1:13 on a dry-erase board, reminding his players they led UMass with that much time remaining before losing. He asked them for 73 more seconds, promising it would be enough to win the rematch.
UMass kept coming, as expected, but instead of buckling under the pressure, the Bonnies took off on a 9-0 run for a 64-54 lead with 5:25 remaining. Schmidt pleaded for his players to maintain their intensity and their heads, and not let another opportunity slip away.
“We had chances but couldn’t finish,” Schmidt said. “Today, we finished.”
The Bonnies had won eight of their nine home games, but still looked inferior against the deeper, more athletic Minutemen. Schmidt’s answer was fronting UMass’ big men, which effectively took away interior passing lanes. Their competitiveness enabled the Bonnies to control the boards.
St. Bonaventure’s chore became even tougher in the opening half when senior guards Charlon Kloof and Matthew Wright went to the bench with two fouls apiece. It left the Bonnies without their two most dependable ball handlers against a team looking to push the tempo with pressure defense. Both answered in the second half. Matthew Wright all but ended the game with a three-pointer in the final minute.
Dion Wright was a beast inside, muscling his way to all 12 of his points in the second half. St. Bonaventure had an answer for everything.
“They seemed like they had a lot of energy to them, and this is a tough place to play. That’s a good team. They’re going to beat a lot of people,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said.
It’s a reflection of their coach.
Schmidt’s roster is made up mostly of players who were either unknown or ignored, discovered in wells untapped or through word of mouth. His lineup looks like it came from a United Nations basketball camp.
Bona’s backcourt includes Kloof, of Suriname, and Matthew Wright, of Toronto. Seven-foot center Youssou Ndoye and swingman Jean Yves Toupane are from Senegal. Sophomore reserve Matthias Runs, another 7-footer, hails from the Netherlands.
It’s one thing to find them, another to cultivate them. It goes to the heart of coaching. Schmidt has proved to be a good one.