Only a mile or two remained in St. Bonaventure's seven-hour journey back from Atlantic City in the wee hours of Monday morning when a phalanx of police cars pulled up to escort the team the rest of the way back to campus.
Waiting at 2:30 a.m. to congratulate the Bonnies for their 67-56 win over Xavier in the Atlantic 10 title game was a throng of several hundred fans.
Wild applause greeted every player getting off the bus, but most thunderous ovation of all went to coach Mark Schmidt. The fifth-year coach who took over a program struggling to make its own conference tournament even made a quick impromptu speech at the urging of the crowd after leading the Bonnies to their first NCAA tournament bid in 12 years.
"This is for you guys," Schmidt told the fans. "This is one of the best days of our lives."
About 11 hours removed from that memorable homecoming greeting, Schmidt reiterated how thankful he was for the show of support.
"For those people to be out there at 2:30 in the morning in the cold waiting for us, it just shows how important basketball is to St. Bonaventure," Schmidt said by phone. "The win was for our team, but more importantly it was for the students and the university. For them to come out and show their appreciation, it meant a great deal."
That St. Bonaventure bused to and from Atlantic City instead of flying is a quintessential example of some of the challenges Schmidt has overcome in rebuilding the program. The Bonnies can't charter flights to road games or spend lavishly to upgrade facilities the way Xavier, Dayton or Temple can, yet those are the programs they're expected to compete with in order to win a league title or go to the NCAA tournament.
The way Schmidt has built St. Bonaventure into an upper-echelon Atlantic 10 program is by uncovering prospects other schools overlooked or didn't want.
Atlantic 10 player of the year Andrew Nicholson hardly generated any recruiting interest from schools besides St. Bonaventure as a result of an ankle injury that kept him from playing in summer tournaments before his senior year. Second-leading scorer Demitrius Conger wasn't well-known either in high school, but the 6-foot-6 wing has blossomed into a versatile complementary threat to Nicholson.
That duo propelled St. Bonaventure to a 20-win season, a fourth-place finish in the league and victories over bubble team Saint Joseph's, surprising UMass and perennial power Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Nicholson had 26 points and 14 rebounds against the Musketeers on Sunday, a dominant performance in the biggest game of the understated senior's already brilliant college career.
"For him to be able to play that well on the national stage, it's just tremendous," Schmidt said. "Someone asked me yesterday if he's better than Bob Lanier. I have no idea because I didn't see Bob Lanier play at St. Bonaventure, but he's our Bob Lanier."
St. Bonaventure earned a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament and a round of 64 matchup on Friday with ACC tournament champion Florida State, perennially one of college basketball's top defensive teams. Schmidt is hopeful the Bonnies can spring another upset in Nashville, but regardless he is proud of what the team accomplished this season.
"Besides getting married and the birth of my sons, yesterday was the biggest day of my life," Schmidt said. "The experience, us winning, seeing the satisfaction on our players' faces, the smiles, the hugs. It was gratifying. It has been a hard road, a lot of battles, a lot of long nights. To get a great victory yesterday, it is almost like we've reached a peak."
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