TORONTO — A quick coming-of-age from two freshmen paired with shooting previously absent led the St. Bonaventure University men’s basketball team to its first victory of the season — an 80-74 triumph over Rutgers University on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena. The game was the final in the three-game James Naismith Classic presented by the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
Led by freshmen Alejandro Vasquez, who finished with 20 points, and Justin Winston, who finished with 19, the Bonnies clinched their second-straight victory over a Big Ten program — their first since a 63-61 victory over Maryland in November 2017 — and their 19th win ever over the Scarlet Knights.
Winston, from West Orange, is a graduate Immaculate Conception in Montclair.
St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said he was impressed with the two freshmen’s performance on a big stage.
“Those freshmen are put in a position where they need to have success,” he said of Vasquez and Winston. “They grew up, they played with confidence. The game wasn’t too big for them. They just played. They didn’t think about where they were playing and who they were playing. They played and they played well and they played with confidence."
He added, “We needed them to step up to beat a team like Rutgers.”
Despite the impressive performance, the freshmen did show some growing pains, committing five of Bona’s 11 combined turnovers. One turnover in particular by Winston with 1:05 left in the game led to a driving layup by Caleb McConnell that cut the Bonnies lead 75-71. The Scarlet Knights trimmed the deficit to four one more time with 11 seconds left after a pull-up three by Geo Baker.
“We played hard enough to get back into the game,” Rutgers coach Scott Pikiell said, “but, to their credit, Coach Schmidt made some real timely baskets against us. We have to play 40 minutes; basketball is a humbling game. We didn’t deserve to win tonight, and we didn’t.”
“We have to get better in those late-game situations,” Schmidt said. “(Vasquez and Winston) played against a really good team. They played really well, and they should be proud of their effort. But, they have to go back and continue to work on it.”
The Bonnies seized momentum early, and after falling behind 5-0 in the game’s first 49 seconds, never trailed again after riding a 15-4 run to a 15-9 lead by the 12:30 mark. Pikiell’s Scarlet Knights struggled to find enough of an answer to overcome the first-half stretch.
“They are a very dangerous basketball team,” Pikiell said of the Bonnies. “They’ve got young, talented guys that are going to go up and down, but I knew that they would be really good today. I told our guys that this would be the toughest game of our stretch here, and they proved very worth of that.”
Adjustments at the half did allow Rutgers to slow the Bonnies down in the second half, limiting them to just 40 percent from the field in the game’s second 20 minutes, compared to nearly 60 percent shooting in the first half.
“I just think we needed to calm down a little bit,” Pikiell said of the adjustment “We sat down and guarded them a little bit, but we had to scramble a little bit down the stretch to kind of catch up to the lead. Every time they needed a timely basket, they made it, to their credit.”
Winston got the start at the power forward position for the Bonnies — the first of his career — pushing redshirt sophomore Bobby Planutis to the bench for the first time this season.
“Whoever practices better gets the nod,” Schmidt said of Winston. “He’s been playing better, and he deserved it.”
The Bonnies were also bolstered by a strong fan contingency that made not only the three-and-half hour journey from the Greater Olean region, but from around the country, to support the program in its first game north of the border.
“I’m really proud to be the head coach at St. Bonaventure,” Schmidt said. “The alums, the boosters, they come and do a really great job. It’s a special place, and they really support us and, even on difficult nights like tonight, it felt at times like the Reilly Center.”