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Vaccaro: 3 OT Win Over Davidson Earns Place in Bona History

 By Mike Vaccaro

              That game was on a Tuesday night, also, near the end of another unforgettable winter at St. Bonaventure. This was the season when the Stith brothers, Tom and Sam, delivered the Bonnies forever. To then, they’d been an integral part of the thriving Northeast corridor basketball family, a parochial array of schools, many of them Catholic, almost all of them beholden to the NIT, the tournament where, if you did well, you could stay in Manhattan for a week and play as many as four games at Madison Square Garden.

              But that year, something tangible happened: the Bonnies became a part of the national basketball conversation. They won a couple of games at the Holiday Festival in December (after getting cold-cocked by Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati in the first round), where Tom Stith became the first Bonnie to score 40 points in back-to-back games, against Manhattan and St. John’s. Later, the Bonnies would beat Marquette and Villanova, crack the Top 20 of the AP poll. The Stith brothers combined to average 52.0 points and 18.6 rebounds between them for the year, and the season would culminate with the team’s first-ever invite to the NCAA Tournament – a berth the team unanimously voted to turn down (in favor of a fourth straight NIT trip) because the East regionals would be held in Charlotte, N.C., and the Stiths would have to find accommodations apart from the rest of the team had the Bonnies agreed to participate.

              But before all of that there was a Tuesday night, Feb. 9, 1960. The Bonnies had been ranked 19th by AP the previous week but the poll released that very morning didn’t include them despite their 10-3 record and eight-game winning streak. But it did feature their guests that evening at the Armory, the Providence Friars, who were No. 14, 13-3, and featured the high-octane trio of Lenny Wilkens, Johnny Egan and James Hadnot, who averaged over 43 points per game between them. It had been 12 years and 90 games since the Bonnies had lost a game at the Armory, but it was agreed this was the sternest test yet of that streak. And the game was magnificent, back and forth, ebbs and flows, Tom Stith at the very top of his game pouring in 46 points, as was Wilkens, who would score 34. Ed Petrovick saved the Bonnies in the first overtime, making a key steal, and Whitey Martin saved Petrovick by rebounding his missed layup and forcing even more time. Finally, with 15 seconds left in the third OT and the Friars winning 89-88, Stith hit the game-winner.

              And for 58 years and 17 days, that game had stood alone as The One, the most unforgettable game in the history of St. Bonaventure basketball, the one – take your pick: the ’95 game against UMass, the 2012 game against St. Joe’s, maybe the four-overtime win over Ohio in 2010, all of them at the Reilly Center – that everyone always fell back to – those who were there, those who were too young to be there but listened to the tales of their elders, those for whom identifying such things matter very much.

              Many years ago, I stood with Bob Sassone, one of the great names in the program’s history, a terrific player under Eddie Melvin and a long-time coach under Eddie Donovan, Larry Weise and Jim Satalin. At the time, he was coaching the upstart team at JCC-Olean, which played its home games at the refurbished Armory. Sass and I sat on folding chairs for a good two hours and he shared the whole gospel with me: the 99-game winning streak; the ominous balcony at one end; the guy with the cane who sat in the front row for almost every one of the games ever played at the Armory (never shy about whacking the shin of an opposing player when necessary); the way each of the 2,800 spectators would repair to the outer corridor at halftime for a smoke, meaning that when they let everyone back in for the second half billowing clouds of cigar and cigarette residue would follow them and turn the final 20 minutes into a nightly Fog Bowl.

              And, of course, St. Bonaventure 90, Providence 89 (3 OT).

              “It wasn’t just that the score was close,” Sass told me that day. “It was the level of play. Our guys. Their guys. Big shots made on both sides. They won the game three different times. We won the game three different times. But we had the best player on the floor, and we won the game.”

              And then Bob Sassone, who has seen every great Bona player and seen almost every great Bona game going back to his freshman year in 1949, said: “I’ve never seen another one quite like it.”

              And now we have this.

              Now we have this masterpiece of a basketball game that was delivered to us on another frosty Tuesday night, the Bonnies and the Davidson Wildcats combining for 55 minutes, for 230 points, for five different players scoring 30 or more points, for a 117-113 triple-overtime epic that, at the very least, deserves to be a part of the conversation. I trust Sass: that game in 1960 deserves a permanent place on the mental mantel of any Bonaventure memory. But I trust my own eyes, too, and this one deserves its place as a bookend. And good luck ever finding a third candidate to knock either one off the shelf.

              A few weeks ago, after the Rhode Island classic, I wrote that I couldn’t watch the game alone because I knew what a nerve-jangling experience it could be – and it was. I had no choice this time: I was alone in my room at the Residence Inn in Port St. Lucie, Fla., pacing off the endless wait to 9 o’clock, filling the time watching St. Joe’s blow the doors off Rhode Island on Rhody’s Senior Night, as stunning a game as you’ll see in any sport this year. That 30-point shellacking filled me with a natural sense of dread, knowing that this was also Bona’s Senior Night, and bad omens often abound in my cluttered mind when there’s too much time to kill.

              Then Corey Stockard tried to calm all of our nerves with a five-minute burst to start the game that had to be wilder than any of the dreams he must have dreamt these last two years as he waited for his damaged foot to finally heal. At one point the score was Stockard 17, Davidson 4. Most of the students were elsewhere, at home or near me at Florida’s Spring Break beaches but the folks who were there were plenty loud, trying to blow out my laptop’s speakers.

              Then Stockard got his second foul.

              And then Davidson’s Peyton Aldridge loosened up.

              And it was clear there was going to be nothing easy about this night, nothing calm, nothing routine. The 15-point lead Bona built on Stockard’s shoulders vaporized in an eyeblink. Aldridge made everything: 3s, post-ups, drives, and there wasn’t a thing anyone in the home grays could do about it. Then his sidekick, Kellan Grady (get used to him, kids, he’s only a freshman) joined in. And if you started to feel a little sick to your stomach, it wasn’t the refried beans you had at dinner.

              And then the second half.

Jesus, the second half.

Punches. Counterpunches. And one big shot after another: Stockard, Jaylen Adams, Matt Mobley. Aldridge and Grady. Back and forth. Up 2, them down 1. Down 3, then up 3. Tied, tied, tied. Then Aldridge missed a free throw (are we sure that really happened? Rewind the tape!) and LaDarien Griffin – that guy again – made a fearless drive to the basket, banked it in, tied the game.

And then, the overtimes.

Jesus: the overtimes …

It isn’t necessary to recite the details in order, because the only feeling that really matters is the one that took over across all 15 minutes, the highs and lows, the times you slammed your hands on the desk and the times you nearly passed out (I counted five different times for me, if you’re scoring at home). The absurd referee’s whistle that helped Davidson extend the game at the end of the first overtime. The even more absurd phantom call that sent Adams to the bench at the end of the second OT with his fifth foul. And, because we are a fair and generous-minded lot, we must acknowledge the most absurd call of all, the one that finally solved the Bonnies’ Aldridge problem, a ghost of a call at the start of the third OT that finally retired him and his 43 points to the bench for good.

Of course, by then, Mobley was the only one of the Bonnies’ top five players left on the floor, and that was when you finally had to concede that the winning streak, and the big early lead, were both fun while they lasted, that there was no way that lineup could finish this after Griffin, then Adams, then Stockard, and then Idris Taqqee all fouled out. Except here was Nelson Kaputo scoring on a tear-drop, and then making all three pressure-packed free throws after getting fouled on a 3 (somewhere, David Messiah Capers no doubt nodded proudly) and then – and this is when maybe you knew, finally, that the good guys really were going to figure this out – finding Tshiefu Nga.akuondi on an inbounds play for the dunk that gave the Bonnies the lead for good.

“You never know, Chef, when you’re numbers gonna get called!” Mark Schmidt crowed later, postgame, in a video shared by the team’s official Twitter account, and wherever you were when Chef slammed that baby home – alone in your hotel room, cheek-to-jowel with fellow believers hoping last call wouldn’t happen before the final buzzer – you found yourself screaming “CHEEEEEFFFF!” Because if anything symbolizes this team, this season, this roster of stars who aren’t bashful about asking their supporting players to shine, that was the moment, this little-used freshman, rising to the basket and to the moment and looking like that’s exactly where he wanted to be.

I’m sure the 2,800 folks who left the Armory 58 years and 17 days earlier were babbling themselves silly (when the weren’t coughing on the thick plumes of Chesterfield smoke) as they took to State and Main for the slippery drive back home. Maybe they were cursing Lenny Wilkens the same way you were cursing Peyton Aldridge, and maybe they were trying to find the proper words to explain Petrovick’s heroics the way you’re doing that now, trying to explain Ngalakuondi’s. It would make sense, after all. They are now a matched set. Keep those two on the bookshelf, forever.

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A member of the class of 2008, Nolan spent four years as a student assistant with the program. He has written professionally for such outlets as espn.com/insider, Athlon Sports Magazines, Cox Sports Online and Blue Ribbon Previews. Ian was named one of the “140 Personalities to Follow in College Basketball” on twitter by The Sporting News.

4 comments

  1. Anonymous

    I see Ed Petrovick all the time. He comes in to do water exercises at the Independent Health YMCA in Buffalo. He’s in good health. He’s shared many a story from his time with the Stith Brothers. I’ll have to ask him about the Providence game.

    Mike, you talked about the emotion of being a Bona fan in a previous column. Last night, I’ll admit I was spent at the end of the game. I was texting with my kid, a second year resident at University of Michigan Hospital. His schools — the University of Rochester and Case Western Reserve — are Division III. So, his college basketball loyalties still rest with the Bonnies. He texted the Capers memory to me. I raised him well. But after Stockard fouled out, I texted, “It’s over.” Then, Aldridge fouled out and I texted, “Well maybe not.” And then that glorious finish.

    I played “Unfurl” from the Sound Cloud. It was recorded a bit after my father’s time at Bona’s in the ‘50s. I looked up and asked, “Were you watching this game, Dad?” And the tears flowed.

    I’ve seen plenty of great games. The Bonnies won the NIT Championship my senior year. The win over Xavier that vaulted the Bonnies into the Big Dance six years ago has not been forgotten. And then there were the Syracuse and Rhode Island games this year. But last night? Well, what more can I say than what you wrote, Mike.

    Just one more thing.

    HOW ‘BOUT THEM BONNIES

  2. Anonymous

    Details: 99 game HOME winning streak. Back then, the NIT was THE post-season tournament. The NCAA was the also-ran, if that. State and UNION, not Main. In Olean, State and Main do not intersect. Other than those details, GREAT article!

  3. Anonymous

    Denny Doyle is my Uncle… Go Bonas!!!!!

  4. Matt Mobley was the hero of the Third OT with 11 points. With the team trying to get him the ball on every inbound pass knowing he would be fouled immediately. While other players began to miss at the line, Mobley with four fouls drove the lane and penetrated Davidson’s depleted back line. With help from the bench players at his side, Matt Mobley played the last 15 minutes nearly error free. Two teams playing like it was the seventh game of the World Series in extra innings. Who’s left to put into the line-up? The home crowd comprised of mostly local, a scattering of students, a couple of cheerleaders and a few alumni like myself standing and cheering almost as loud as if the entire student body was in Reilly Center. I felt a sense that Matt Mobley was going to will the victory and extend not only the streak, but to make a statement about deserving a nod and without question or hesitation that this isn’t a bubble team.