ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — With 30 seconds to play in the Atlantic 10 Conference title game and victory assured, the reality of going to the NCAA tournament set in for St. Bonaventure.
The players on the court smiled and hugged. Coach Mark Schmidt walked down his bench and congratulated everyone. The brown-clad fans in a roughly half-filled old arena in this casino resort clapped and cheered louder with each passing second.
A dozen years after its last NCAA bid and nine seasons after an embarrassing scandal, little St. Bonaventure (20-11) is back in college basketball's show after beating Xavier 67-56 in the title game behind conference Player of the Year Andrew Nicholson's 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocked shots.
"This is a great moment for the program and for the school," said Schmidt, who has turned things around in five seasons. "From where we have come it's been a long hard battle. A lot of times, you work and you work and you work and you still don't have success. But someone is looking over us, and I told the guys in the locker room, we worked and worked and worked and got lucky. We had success."
This is a rebirth for St. Bonaventure, whose program was embarrassed in 2003 for using an illegal player and then allowing its players to boycott the final two regular season games after the conference suspended the player.
Schmidt doubts any of his players know much about the scandal. All they know is that they are now winners.
"I didn't know what happened before I came here," Nicholson said. "I remember when coach Schmidt recruited me. He said you are a special player and you can do something. I wanted to go to school where I could make a difference. It shows today. We did it.:"
A 250-pound power forward from Canada, Nicholson was clearly the difference in this one. The senior hit 7 of 13 shots from the field, all 10 of his free throws and single-handedly prevented Xavier from getting to the basket for most of the game. His eight blocks were a conference tournament championship game record.
Not only did Nicholson dominate inside, he showed a soft touch, hitting two 3-pointers in an early 22-5 run that gave the Bonnies a 16-point lead.
Xavier coach Chris Mack said he has seen some great performances on television but Nicholson's effort was the best he has watched from the sidelines.
"He is an NBA player. Man is he good," Mack said. "We had a really good plan that we were able to execute in game one. He out-executed our plan. He's extremely long, he's skilled, he's unselfish, a poor man's Tim Duncan, by far the best player in our league and an NBA team needs to take him in the first round."
Da' Quan Cook and Charlon Kloff added nine points apiece for the Bonnies (20-11), who hit 7 of 9 shots in an early run that opened a 16-point lead.
"We were playing with house money, we had nothing to lose," Schmidt said. "No one expected us to be there. We went out there and played. I told the guys before the game, we don't have to do anything different. We have defend, rebound and take care of the ball. We have to play harder, smarter and more together as a team, and we'll win."
The Bonnies did just that giving their little school located roughly 90 miles from Syracuse something to smile about again.
Tu Holloway had 17 points and Mark Lyons added 16 for third-seeded Xavier (21-12), which never got over the hump after falling behind early.
"We've been able to climb out of deficits like that all season," center Kenny Frease said. "We never counted ourselves out of the game. "
St. Bonaventure built the margin to 41-24 in the opening minutes of the second half, but Xavier, which has been to the last six NCAA tournaments and could make it seven with an at-large bid, made a run.
The Musketeers, who beat the Bonnies by 13 points earlier this season, outscored them 21-9 over a 10-minute spurt to get within 45-41 on a three-point play by freshman Dezmine Wells with 10:03 to play.
Demiterius Conger got St. Bonaventure back on track with a spinning drive that turned into a three-point play.
After Wells scored in the lane, the Musketeers had a chance to cut their deficit to two points, but a 3-pointer by Dee Davis hit off the rim and Nicholson eventually made it 50-43 with two free throws with 8:23 to play.
Xavier never got closer than five points the rest of the way as Nicholson added six points down the stretch and Kloof iced the game with four free throws.
The Musketeers struggled from the field, shooting 34 percent (20 of 59), They were 2 of 13 from long range and were outrebounded 42-29.
The tournament had its share of upsets. Top-seeded Temple was knocked in the quarterfinals by eighth-seeded Massachusetts and No. 2 Saint Louis was sent home by Xavier in the semifinals.
After six years in this casino resort, the tournament will be moving to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 2013.