CLEVELAND — His career outing behind him, Osun Osunniyi had no problem acknowledging it.
“Prior to the game, everybody was anxious,” the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team’s junior center said. “(There were definitely) pregame jitters.”
And, for both the Bonnies and their fans, why wouldn’t there be?
Bona had only just begun practicing with a full roster following an 18-day pause due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests. It’s still “not nearly where we need to be conditioning-wise,” coach Mark Schmidt made clear afterward. Plus, it had struggled out of the gate of late (due largely to injury), dropping each of the first two openers of the Osunniyi era and the last three overall.
But this, almost from the start, looked nothing like a team that hadn’t taken the floor in over nine months.
Osunniyi scored a career-high 25 points with eight rebounds and, behind their celebrated junior trio, the Bonnies built an early advantage and led wire-to-wire in downing Akron, 81-74, in their long-awaited season-opener Tuesday afternoon inside Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
BONA, in its first action in 283 days, tallied 81 points despite shooting just 1-of-14 from 3-point range inside a cavernous NBA venue it had little practice time on. It reclaimed a double-digit advantage with 4:42 remaining in the first half and led by at least nine until the final minute. And in the end, it picked up a convincing win over a top-end MAC team without junior transfer Anthony Roberts, still making his way back from quarantine, who’s expected to provide a scoring punch this winter.
“It’s been so many challenges, but for our guys, I know they were so excited to play,” said Schmidt, when asked if he was even slightly surprised by Tuesday’s effort. “They were sick of practicing, of me yelling all the time. From a mental standpoint, they needed to play a game ...
“I didn’t know how it was going to go, but I knew the kids were excited to play. We’ve got a lot of things that we need to get better at … but it’s good to be 1-0. It’s good to win, good to win the first game in nine months.”
IN TYPICAL Schmidt fashion, he was quick to point out where the Bonnies need to improve.
Bona held the Zips to an ugly 6-of-32 from 3-point range, but also benefited from the fact that Akron missed a number of wide open shots. It jumped out to an 8-2 advantage and led 12-5 at the first media timeout, suggesting it wasn’t as gassed as Schmidt might have expected in the first four minutes; however, as Osunniyi noted, “I guess you could say we did a good job of hiding it.”
Mostly, though, they fared well for a team that had to play this season and had just endured another long layoff.
Osunniyi showed growth offensively, totaling 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting while also totaling three assists and a block in 36 minutes. Dominick Welch tallied 18 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals and Kyle Lofton added 17 points, five helpers and four rebounds for the Bonnies.
No, Bona didn’t shoot well, but it offset that by turning some defense into offense and doing an excellent job of attacking the Zips’ man-to-man and 1-3-1 zone defense, racking up 56 points in the paint to Akron’s 36. Yes, it allowed some penetration at times, but did an admirable job on Akron star Loren Christian Jackson, limiting the reigning MAC Player of the Year to just four first-half points en route to 22 on 7-of-17 shooting and containing him when it mattered most.
“We knew going into the game, when you’re playing in an arena as big as this, it’s hard to shoot from the perimeter. That’s just the way it goes,” Schmidt said. “I thought our guys were smart and attacked the basket. We got the ball into ‘Shoon, we attacked it, we got a lot of layups.
“We’ve got to be better, but to have 56 points out of 81 in the paint tells you that our guys were aggressive. It’s not a positive shooting 1-for-14 (from 3s), but it’s a positive scoring 81 points when only three of them came from beyond the arc.”
RATHER THAN rust, Bona displayed an undeniable early energy despite secretly sucking some wind. Osunniyi finished a pair of nice dishes from Lofton, both Welch and Jaren Holmes had breakaway dunks off steals. Welch later finished a three-point play to extend the lead to double-digits (31-20) and get a rise from his socially distant bench.
It was that pent up energy from not having taken the court since March, from missing out on not one, but two other season-openers, that keyed Bona early.
“Just that alone was enough to get the team riled up and ready to play,” Osunniyi said. “And with everything going on, you never know when things might get shut down, like what happened with St. Francis, so I think just being able to put the jerseys on, be out there playing … the energy of basically not playing for nine months was enough to get us going.”
And with that, it secured its first goal of this uncertain season.
“Our goal when we started back in August was to be 1-0 after the first game,” Schmidt said. “The first game took whatever, another month, but we are 1-0. We’ve got a long way to go execution-wise, both offensively and defensively … but it was a good victory being our first game and dealing with everything we’ve been dealing with."