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Mel Evans, Associated Press
Massachusetts' Sean Carter, center, holds onto the ball as he is defended by St. Bonaventure's Da'Quan Cook (20) and Jordan Gathers (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament in Atlantic City, N.J., Saturday, March 10, 2012.

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — St. Bonaventure is a step away from being back on the basketball map.

Demitrius Conger had 22 points and 10 rebounds and St. Bonaventure moved within a win of getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000 by holding off Massachusetts 84-80 in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.

The fourth-seeded Bonnies will face the winner of the game between second-seeded Saint Louis and third-seeded Xavier for the conference championship and the automatic bid to the show.

"To go from where we were to where we are today is a great accomplishment for our program," said coach Mark Schmidt, who took over the program in 2007 after it had won 25 games in the previous five seasons. "I am proud of it. I'm proud of our guys, but we've still got one more to go. If we can get that one tomorrow, it will be one of the greatest accomplishments in St. Bonaventure history."

Conference player of the year Andrew Nicholson added 19 points for the Bonnies (19-11), whose win total is the most since they went 21-10 in 1999-2000.

This one didn't come easily.

Massachusetts (22-11) rallied from a 16-point deficit with 7:29 to play and had a chance to take the lead in the closing seconds, only to see Raphiael Putney's high-arcing 3-pointer hit off the side of the rim with less than 2 seconds to play.

"The ball was in the air a long time," said Terrell Vinson, who had 20 points to lead the Minutemen, who knocked off top-seeded Temple on Friday. "I thought it was down once it left his hand."

Matthew Wright got the rebound after the miss and hit two free throws to ice the game.

Chris Johnson came off the bench to replace a foul-plagued Nicholson in the first half and added 14 points, while Charlon Kloof had 10 for the Bonnies, who hurt their chances down the stretch by missing six free throws in the final 2:31. They entered the tournament as the nation's fifth-best free throw shooting team, hitting 76.9 percent.

Massachusetts, which has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, scored the first five points of the second half to close to within 48-46.

After a timeout, St. Bonaventure went on a 22-8 spurt. Nicholson started the run with a hook shot and ended it with a 3-pointer for a 70-56 lead with less than eight minutes to play.

Massachusetts, which had struggled to get its press going most of the game, finally started forcing some turnovers and nearly wiped out the deficit.

"We were a small bounce from winning the game after, I would say, we didn't control the game for the majority of time," Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg said.

The Minutemen will now have to hope for an NIT berth.

St. Bonaventure is a game away from something a lot bigger.

"It's been a big goal for us all through the season," said Nicholson, who picked up two early fouls and played the final minutes with four.