OLEAN — Attendance at the Reilly Center has a new wrinkle: St. Bonaventure’s basketball fans stand until the opponent scores its first field goal, something Mark Schmidt calls “Taking A Stand For Defense.’’
It didn’t take long for South Dakota to enter the scoring column, but the Bonnies made nearly every other basket problematic for the rest of the evening. On a cold shooting night, defense carried St. Bonaventure to a stress-free 68-46 season-opening victory Saturday in front of 3,855.
Senior point guard Charlon Kloof’s fingerprints were all over this one as he led the Bonnies with 16 points, seven assists, four steals and one emphatic block that summed up St. Bonaventure’s refurbished defensive mindset.
South Dakota was making a push and trimmed St. Bonaventure’s lead to 35-30 in the second half when the Coyotes’ Trey Norris stole the ball near midcourt and had a wide-open layup until Kloof came in to swat it away.
“The defense really showed how good the team knows each other,” said Kloof, who didn’t commit a turnover in 38 minutes. “That’s the best way to get the new guys, the young guys, into it. If a young guy, as a freshman, gets a steal and a dunk or a fast break and an assist, that really lifts you up.”
The Bonnies (1-0) held the Coyotes to 33.3 percent shooting including 28.6 percent and six field goals in the second half. Nothing came easy for Trevor Gruis, a preseason All-Summit League selection, who finished with 13 points on 4 of 7 shooting, as the Bonnies’ interior defense denied passes in the post.
“He looks to seal you over the top for the most part and our emphasis all week was to keep him out of the paint and not give up the high-low pass,” said senior forward Marquise Simmons, who celebrated his 24th birthday with 12 points and nine rebounds. “We just wanted to take him away from their team. Period.”
Defense became a priority for the Bonnies in the offseason. They scored more points last season than the previous year when they won the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship, but defense and rebounding were problem areas. Besides, the taste of not being able to defend their title after a stunning regular season loss at home to Fordham remains vinegary to this day.
“We’ve all been waiting to play this game since last year on March 9 when we lost to Fordham,” Simmons said. “It’s been a sickening feeling in our stomachs all summer and that’s what I thought about when I was working out. Days I didn’t feel like going to the gym I made myself go.”
Meanwhile, Schmidt leaned on the words of the late Skip Prosser, his mentor and friend: “It’s not what you teach, it’s what you emphasize.”
“We went back to the basics of defending and rebounding and taking care of the basketball,” Schmidt said. “You look back and you critique the season and you see these are areas we didn’t do as well and you try and improve on those areas.”
Jordan Gathers added 11 points while Youssou Ndoye added nine points and nine rebounds for St. Bonaventure, which shot 42.1 percent from the floor.
The Bonnies were shooting three-pointers too early in the shot clock and found themselves trailing, 17-9. Then Schmidt applied some 1-2-2 pressure, forcing the Coyotes to take shots out of rhythm. South Dakota scored just two field goals in the final 11:13 as the Bonnies outscored the Coyotes, 22-4, to build a 31-21 halftime lead.
The Coyotes are making the most of their Eastern trip and remain in Western New York to play Canisius College at 7 p.m. Monday at the Koessler Center.
St. Bonaventure fans will have to wait for the debut of guard Andell Cumberbatch, who sat out Saturday’s game and will miss Monday’s game against Abilene Christian because he participated in summer basketball games that were not NCAA certified.
The 6-4 junior from East Orange, N.J. played the last two seasons at Barton (Kansas) Community College.