Nashville — The shrieks were audible from the crowd here at Bridgestone Arena. What started as wishful thinking, then built into something well within reason, was going to end in despair. And with no timeouts left for St. Bonaventure, it was sadly unavoidable.
As Da’Quan Cook drove into the lane and put up two shots in the final 14 seconds — two-point attempts, inexplicably, with his team trailing by 3 — you could hear the fans protesting at first, and then pleading. Pass it! Shoot the three! But those calls went unheeded. And when the buzzer sounded, Florida State, a sleeper Final Four pick for some folks, had escaped, 66-63. The Bonnies were going home.
That wasn’t the plan at the end of the game, coach Mark Schmidt later admitted. Asked what he was trying to get on the final possession, he replied tersely, “A good shot.” Asked if he wished he had a timeout to call at that point, to make sure his players understood what was needed, Schmidt answered, “Yeah, I wish I had five more timeouts. … But we didn’t.”
No, they didn’t. But just as there was no turning the clock back, there was no telling Schmidt this was a failure, or a flop, or a collapse, even though his team — the No. 14 seed in the East Region — had held the lead over the ACC tournament champs for the first 35 minutes of the game, threatening to become the first big Cinderella story of the tournament.
“There’s no negatives about this game,” Schmidt said. “We lost. But we gave a great performance.”
They’d come a long way to get here, obviously. St. Bonaventure, a basketball-loving school of 2,000 from western New York, was back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a dozen years. More important, the Bonnies were back after a scandal that rocked the school nearly a decade ago. A recruiting scandal that led to the resignation of the school president and firings of the AD and head coach Jan van Breda Kolff left the program in tatters. A school with a proud hoops tradition, including a Bob Lanier-led 1970 Final Four run, was disgraced.
All of that is why this year’s surprising Atlantic 10 tournament title resulted in such unfettered joy — students jumping into the ocean in Atlantic City to celebrate, an impromptu 3 a.m parade back on campus, and so on. Led by another talented big man — Andrew Nicholson — the Bonnies had made it all the way back. Nicholson isn’t just an NBA prospect, he’s also a soft-spoken physics major. Jokes about St. Bonaventure becoming a “welding school” — that was the degree the ineligble player had transferred in with back in ’03 — finally were being put to rest, along with the painful memories that followed the NCAA probation, a university official’s suicide and 40 years of a proud basketball tradition tarnished.
And all of that came flooding out of Schmidt as he spoke after the game Friday.
“When we left (campus) two days ago, the streets were lined and there wasn’t a better feeling in the world,” he said. “I think we brought pride and spirit back to our community. We might be the only school in the country that plays in such a small environment where basketball is everything. You know, it gets people through the wintertime. And you talk to a lot of people now and, ‘The Bonnies are back.’ … And it’s because of what our players have done.’
He went on and on like that, talking about how many fans had driven 12 hours to Nashville to cheer the team — the turnout was impressive — and about how good the Florida State defense can be. (There’s a reason Leonard Hamilton’s team beat North Carolina and Duke twice each this winter.) He also talked about how Nicholson “may not be as a good as Bob Lanier, but he is our Bob Lanier.” The graduating senior took a chance on the Bonnies, Schmidt said, and “He brought us back. He brought us back from the ashes.”
All of which is true, perhaps.
Still, the end is always painful, no matter the path. That’s what makes this tournament so exhilirating. And that’s what made those final seconds so excruciating.
“It’s just part of the game,” Nicholson said quietly at the postgame press conference, unable to say much more in reflection. “You win some, you lose some.”