NASHVILLE — A Canadian physics major who enrolled at St. Bonaventure to try to resurrect its basketball program nearly authored the biggest shocker thus far in the NCAA tournament.
Andrew Nicholson, a 6-foot-9 senior with a bright NBA future, helped the 14th-seeded Bonnies put a scare into third-seeded Florida State, the ACC tournament champion, in a East Region round-of-64 at Bridgestone Arena.
The Atlantic 10 Conference’s leading scorer finished with 20 points on Friday, but the Seminoles managed just enough offense — and one final defensive stop — to hold on for a 66-63 victory. The Bonnies, who reached the NCAA tournament only after unexpectedly winning the conference tournament title, had a chance to tie the score in the final seconds with a three-pointer.
But forward Da’Quan Cook attempted a two-point shot that was blocked by Okaro White, and Florida State’s fans howled in celebration.
The Seminoles’ rally from a six-point halftime deficit spoiled what would have been a compelling story line for St. Bonaventure, a team that had not won a tournament game since Bob Lanier led the Bonnies to the 1970 Final Four.
And in recent years, the program has been rebuilding following the 2003 scandal in which the school admitted a player who had earned only a welding certificate at a Georgia community college. The scandal resulted in the resignation of President Robert Wickenheiser, the firing of Coach Jan van Breda Kolff and the forfeiture of six Atlantic 10 games.
The team decided not to play its final two games of that regular season. And the chairman of the board of trustees, Bill Swan, killed himself, explaining in a suicide note that he was “so sorry” for the pain he caused the university.
For the basketball program, it has been a long nine years back to relevance. But the program found the spotlight Friday, when a large, raucous contingent of St. Bonaventure fans was on hand to cheer on what they see as a new era for the program.
“This was a special game for Bonaventure,” Coach Mark Schmidt said. “This was a new beginning for Bonaventure.”
Nicholson’s sterling play was nearly enough to overcome a Florida State team that once again is one of the nation’s leaders in field goal percentage defense. Contending with the Seminoles’ deep roster of capable big men may have ultimately worn down Nicholson.
Before the second half reached the midway point, Nicholson held his hips and bent over in apparent exhaustion near midcourt as a player shot free throws. The Seminoles were more successful in the second half denying entry passes and forcing Nicholson to rely on his outside jump shot. After making all five of his field goal attempts in the first half, Nicholson made just 3 of 12 after halftime.
“The guy was raining threes, and we had a tough time dealing with him,” Florida State forward Bernard James said. “I can see why he is a first-round NBA prospect.”
Perhaps most impressive was that Florida State won despite Michael Snaer, the team’s leading scorer, missing all seven of his field goal attempts and finishing with zero points. Schmidt and Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton both said Snaer missed plenty of open shots.
After the game, most Florida State players sat in the locker room with ice bags on their hands, knees or shoulders. They were battered and bruised after playing a team that matched them in physicality enough to nearly secure the upset.
Said James, “It took until halftime for Coach to come in here and chew us out.”