NEW YORK — The jumper appeared true as soon as it left the hand of Jordan Gathers. It didn’t matter if he missed six other shots before then and only one found home. His final shot – a three-pointer a mere trace before the buzzer – was spot-on.
Seconds later Gathers was enveloped in a group hug by his St. Bonaventure teammates, a celebratory moment in the Bonnies’ stunning 71-68 upset over top-seeded Saint Louis in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament at the Barclays Center on Friday.
The No. 9 seeded Bonnies (18-14), tossed aside for any chance to make noise in this tournament after losing four straight to end the regular season, survived and advanced to the semifinal round where they will play No. 4 seed Saint Joseph’s at 1:30 p.m. today (CBS Sports Network).
Trailing by 10 points at the half, St. Bonaventure rode the hot shooting of Matthew Wright and an active, tightfisted zone defense that limited the Billikens (26-6) to 37 percent shooting in the second half before Gathers drained what coach Mark Schmidt called “probably one of the biggest shots in Bonaventure history.”
No, it isn’t a stretch. And speaking of history, there’s a certain buzz surrounding the Bonnies that is quite similar to the storybook ending authored two years ago when they won the A-10 Tournament in Atlantic City, N.J.
Is it too early to hammer out a sequel?
“We have some guys on the team who were a part of that, and I think that helps,” Schmidt said. “Experience is everything.”
Especially when you have a strong, heady point guard like Charlon Kloof. Kloof received the ball with 21 seconds left after Saint Louis’ Dwayne Evans tied the game with a three-pointer.
Once he reached halfcourt, Kloof dribbled back and forth in front of Mike McCall Jr., slowly milking the clock. Kloof dribbled hard left then darted right toward the St. Bonaventure bench, pulling defenders toward him like a magnet and away from the area where Gathers would eventually become a hero. Once Kloof arrived at the right corner, he jumped and tossed a pass to a wide open Gathers, who didn’t hesitate when he let fly.
Swish. Game over. Time for a breathing treatment.
“When I let it go, yeah, I knew it was going in,” said Gathers, who finished with five points on 2-of-7 shooting. “I’ve been in the gym working hard, and it’s finally paid off.”
Because Schmidt has so much faith in his senior point guard, the play was designed for Kloof, who scored 22 points and handed out four assists, to create whatever he needed to do off a high ball screen. Kloof elected, astutely, to find Gathers.
“I circled up and I was open,” Gathers said. “Three-point shot.”
Down 38-28, the first five minutes of the second half were critical for St. Bonaventure, and Gathers and Wright banged home two jumpers to start it off.
“I told the team it was either going to go from 10 to 20, or we’re going to cut into it and make it a ball game,” Schmidt said.
But the Bonnies had to adjust defensively to take away the easy baskets by Saint Louis, so Schmidt mixed in a 2-3 and an extended 1-3-1 zone to keep Jordair Jett (nine points), the league’s Player of the Year, out of the lane. Schmidt put 6-foot-8 Dion Wright, whose long, thin arms stretch from here to the Bronx, at the top of the zone to make it a challenge for the Billikens in the passing lanes.
“I didn’t think we were aggressive with it,” McCall said. “I thought we were just holding the ball and not attacking it. They were trying to turn us over.”
As the Billikens struggled, Wright, a cold-blooded shooter when he percolates, heated up. The senior scored 17 of his 22 points in the second half. He gave the Bonnies their first lead at 54-52 with 9:15 left on a three-pointer. Then, after a Saint Louis timeout, he drilled another to extend the advantage to 57-52.
“I’m not going to lie, I was a little numb throughout the second half,” said Wright after he was asked if he was in a zone. “I kept telling the team to relax, the game isn’t done yet, there’s still a lot of basketball left. I was right.”
Indeed, five-point leads tend to evaporate quickly come March, and St. Bonaventure was in a dogfight from the five-minute mark until the finish. Wright gave the Bonnies a three-point lead on a three-pointer with 39 seconds left before Evans answered and tied the game at 68 with 21 seconds remaining.
“I told you the game isn’t done yet,” Wright yelled at his teammates.
But there were 21 seconds on the clock. Kloof beat Niagara earlier in the season on a length-of-the-floor, buzzer-beating layup in less time than it takes to hiccup. Twenty-one seconds is an eternity for Kloof.
“I knew Charlon was going to come off and make the right play,” Gathers said.
And lead St. Bonaventure to a memorable finish.
“It’s every player’s dream to hit that big-time shot or to make that play or have a big game,” Gathers said. “It’s truly a blessing, and I give God all the glory.”