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Defense drives Owls' breakaway from Bonnies

Florida Atlantic blew open the door against St. Bonaventure in the Hall of Fame Classic with hall-of-fame second-half defense, left it ajar with a few free-throw misses, but survived that touch of late-game agita with a significant 64-54 decision over a likely fellow NCAA Tournament team.

FAU (9-2), described earlier this year by Liberty coach Ritchie McKay as having “ ‘spurtability’ as good as any in the country," broke this game open with a prime example—holding the Bonnies scoreless for five minutes and outscoring them 14-0 to twist out of a 41-38 deficit and into a 52-41 lead.

The run started once FAU finally got center Vlad Goldin going offensively with back-to-back dunks off Johnell Davis screen-and-roll feeds after St. Bonaventure (7-3) had limited him to just two points the first 29 minutes. Goldin scored nine of his 11 points—second to Davis’ 16—in the second half. Goldin’s second basket drew an and-one that gave the Owls the lead they never lost. Davis, Nick Boyd (seven points in first game since Nov. 18) and Bryan Greenlee (eight points) all contributed to the offense during the streak.

But the foundation to the streak was a full team effort on defense. In fact, FAU’s defense probably was the most influential factor from the point in the first half when the Owls shockingly found themselves trailing by 11 points. After being held without a point for seven minutes and down 23-12, they finished the half on a five-minute 15-3 run that was a precursor of the second-half game-buster and took a 27-26 lead.

The stats tell part of the story. FAU forced 21 turnovers overall and limited St. Bonaventure to three assists in the second half after a free-wheeling 10-assist first half. If the Owls weren’t making life uncomfortable for the Bonnies at the rim, they were gumming up ball movement and forcing several near shot-clock violations. They also out rebounded St. Bonaventure 35-28, led by Davis with nine. “I thought we won this game because Nelly got about five tough rebounds,” FAU coach Dusty May said.

Significantly, the Owls also out-Brenen Lorient-ed the Bonnies. Lorient, the high-motored reserve wing, filled in much of the between-the-lines part of the defensive story. He kept at least two productive offensive possessions alive with hustle plays at the rim during the 14-0 run, but those preceded his true poster moment. Lorient raced to the corner to create a particularly dispiriting turnover for St. Bonaventure by confronting stalwart center Chad Venning, getting his hand on the ball and saving it out of bounds off the big man.

“I thought those were the biggest possessions in the game,” May said.

“We were just getting extra possessions. When we walk into the locker room after the game, the first thing I look at is, did we get more shots than they got?”

This time May saw eight more shots and six more free throws, which in his formula counts as 14 more shots.

“Without Brenen, that number’s not 14,” he said.

Venning had been a huge source of strength for the Bonnies while they were even or ahead—befitting his 6-foot-10, 255-pound stature. He tied for the team lead in points (11) and rebounds (seven) while also doing most of the individual heavy lifting as St. Bonaventure buried Goldin with bodies in the first half while also switching on the perimeter. Goldin and Giancarlo Rosado (shown via Michael Dwyer) eventually wore him down. His fifth foul with his team trailing 54-45 and 5:06 to play put FAU in position to bring the game home safely.

Didn’t quite happen that way. FAU, which missed 12 of 23 free throws Wednesday against FIU and entered the game at 69.4 percent as a team, missed four straight along the way to a 13-for-23 night overall. Given a bit of reprieve, the Bonnies actually hit back-to-back 3s to cut a 10-point lead to 58-52 before the Owls reasserted themselves. Alijah Martin got a put-back to begin that stretch.

May asserted confidence in FAU free-throw shooting going forward.

“I’ll be shocked if there aren’t several games this year that we win because of our ability to make free throws,” he said. “Throughout the season there’s ebbs and flows. Water is always going to find its level. Right now we’re in a little bit of a rut. Several of them were in and out. I was most proud that we offensive rebounded a couple of them and didn’t let it affect other parts of our game.”

Indeed, the Owls leave Springfield, Mass., feeling good about themselves. Boyd’s return enhanced that. The redshirt sophomore, last seen in uniform limping off the court after the Bryant game Nov. 18, played 20 minutes off the bench. His baskets included a couple of timely drives that May said opened the court for others later.

“He brought life to us,” May said. “And he still didn’t have the rhythm he’s going to have later on. But just another threat on the floor makes everyone more difficult to guard when you have a guy that’s probably one of our best finishers at the rim."

The Owls have a week to button up in advance of their showdown next Saturday in Las Vegas with what by then is sure to be former No. 1 Arizona. The Wildcats most likely will drop their top ranking after falling to No. 3 Purdue 92-84 Saturday at Indianapolis.

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