Against Syracuse last night, the beard didn't turn Bonner into Samson, but it did help turn him into a difference maker.
Bonner, a 7-foot-1 junior center, came off the bench to score a career-high 13 points and pull down six rebounds as the University of Massachusetts rallied from a 22-point second-half deficit to shock Syracuse 81-77 in a quarterfinal game of the National Invitation Tournament.
"Before the game, I told Luke he was going to have the biggest game of his career, I really did," said UMass' starting center Dante Milligan. "It happened. He took some crucial charges, made a bunch of shots, played some great defense. That's Luke Bonner."
Bonner entered last night's game averaging 3.4 points per game in 10.8 minutes of play. He had only three more total points (69) than he did personal fouls (66), and his career-high point total was 11 which came in games against Saint Bonaventure and IUPUI. He never had a night like this on a stage like this.
His performance was deemed more critical because forward Tony Gaffney, an energy source off the UMass bench, was in street clothes after suffering a knee injury in Saturday's NIT win over Akron. That gave Bonner something else to think about.
"It was definitely in the back of my mind because Tony's a big part of the team," said Bonner. "More so, I think I just changed my mentality in terms of just playing with confidence.
Last night, Bonner was called from his spot on the bench when Milligan picked up his second personal foul with 9:57 left in the first half. Syracuse's starting lineup consisted of 6-11 Donte Green, 6-9 Arinze Onuaru and 6-8 Kristof Onegaet and without Gaffney, Bonner was the only Minuteman taller than those three.
Two minutes after entering the game, Bonner made his presence felt when he rebounded a 3-point miss by Ricky Harris and hit a jumper in the paint. Bonner ended up with a team-high 8 points as UMass trailed 43-24 at halftime.
"Luke Bonner was huge," said UMass coach Travis Ford. "Those eight points he scored in the first half were absolutely critical. He got some key rebounds, he got a charge, and that's the thing you need to win a game like this, you've got to have somebody step up."
Bonner arrived at UMass as a transfer from Big East school West Virginia. The younger brother of San Antonio Spur Matt Bonner was a New Hampshire high school standout and much was expected of him. Not very much had materialized until last night, and on a huge stage.
"It's very satisfying. This is one of the most famous buildings in college basketball, and to come in here and win is definitely something I'll never forget for the rest of my life," said Bonner. "Especially to contribute in such a way, it feels really good."
Oh, and about the beard?
"It's my NIT beard. My brother did a similar thing last year (in the NBA playoffs)," the Minuteman said with a smile, "so I grew one this year."
UMass fans need to remember one thing. Matt Bonner's Spurs won the NBA title last year. So Luke's beard will stick around for a while.
To reach Howard Herman: email@example.com, (413) 496-6253.