They’d provided glimpses of their potential in three previous games, making for the one big positive in an otherwise dreary 0-3 start.
Justin Winston, the first four-star recruit of the Mark Schmidt era, had begun to display the bundle of natural ability that made him such a highly regarded prospect out of prep school. Alejandro Vasquez, the bold and brash guard from Queens, had the makings, and confidence, of a scorer.
And even though the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team had come up empty in its first three outings, the promise of these players was enough to be more hopeful for the future than worried in the present.
On Saturday, that future made the next stop in its arrival.
On their biggest stage to date, and on the same floor as a Big Ten opponent, Winston and Vasquez starred, scoring career highs of 19 and 20 points, respectively, to lead Bona to an 80-74 upset victory over Rutgers in the final game of the inaugural James Naismith Classic inside Toronto’s ScotiaBank Arena.
“We played really well,” Schmidt said. “The freshmen really grew up -- AJ and Justin played really well. Those freshmen, you never know when the light’s going to come on. The light went on today for both of those guys.”
Behind their formidable freshmen, who combined to go an impressive 14-of-23 from the field, including 7-of-10 from 3-point range, Bona simultaneously picked up its first win of the year and took down the second-highest ranked opponent on its non-league schedule.
With their youngsters again leading the way, it knocked off a ‘Power 5’ opponent for the fourth time in the last six tries and made the most of this first trip to Canada, which has produced a handful of program greats over the decades.
Bona, as Schmidt noted afterward, wasn’t perfect, allowing a head-turning 19-point first-half lead to dwindle to four in the later stages. It was overwhelmed by the bigger, stronger Scarlet Knights down the stretch before hanging on.
By 9:30 p.m., however, it didn’t matter … and its 0-3 start was finally, firmly in the rearview.
What mattered was that these Bonnies had their first building-block victory and, much like the end of last season, they’d provided a taste of that future in the present.
“It’s good to see,” Schmidt continued. “With (Osun Osunniyi) out, those freshmen are put in a position where we need to have a couple of them have some success. One of the reasons why we won and had such a big lead, especially in the first half, was the two freshmen (the pair had 24 of Bona’s 40 first-half points).
“They grew up, they played with confidence, the game wasn’t too big for them. And that’s what we needed from them.”
After an anemic first three games offensively, Bona exploded over the first 20 minutes against Rutgers, shooting a blistering 59 percent, including a 6-of-11 mark from distance. Vasquez scored six quick points to turn an early 5-0 hole into a lead. Winston drilled a 3-pointer to push a double-digit advantage to 19 (34-15) with 5:23 left in the half and force a Rutgers timeout.
From the beginning, Bona, which took a 13-point lead into the break after entering the contest as 8.5-point underdog, was more aggressive and engaged offensively than it had been all season.
“That was the message from the beginning,” Vasquez said. “We wanted to come out with energy and just set (the tone) from the top.” Added Schmidt: “We just played. It wasn’t perfect, but as I told the guys before the game, if we played hard -- and we played hard consistently -- we would have a shot, and we did.”
The Scarlet Knights more resembled the team that had shut opponents down en route to a 3-0 start, cutting the lead to 67-63 with 5:04 remaining, but Bona did just enough to remain in front.
Vasquez answered with two big 3s to make it 70-63 and 73-65. Dominick Welch, who finished with 11 points, grabbed a key offensive rebound with 1:51 left to push a five-point game to seven. Kyle Lofton, who totaled 17 points and eight assists to just one turnover, made a pair of free throws in the final seconds to seal it.
“We found a way,” Schmidt said. “We didn’t execute perfectly throughout the second half, especially toward the end, but we made our foul shots and we finished it the way we needed to. We got a couple of stops.”
Despite a shakier second half, Bona shot 49 percent and made 11 3-pointers -- both season-bests -- committed only 11 turnovers and weathered Rutgers’ massive size difference at both ends. A team that was averaging only 55 points scored 80 … against a power conference opponent.
The Bonnies needed their best effort of the early going to have a chance, and they got it.
And now, they finally have some much-needed confidence going forward.
“You only gain confidence by playing well,” said Schmidt, whose teams have knocked off consecutive Big Ten opponents after topping Maryland in November 2017, “and not just playing well in practice, you have to do it in games, and hopefully (tonight) will push them forward and give them a lot of confidence.
“They played well against a really good team; hey should be proud of their effort. Now we’ve got to go back and keep working at it. We’re nowhere near where we need to be if we’re going to be a successful team this year.
Added Lofton: “(It’s) even better that we did it against Rutgers, a Big Ten school, because it shows that we can compete. Hopefully we build off this and just another win (over Canisius) next Saturday.”