OLEAN, N.Y. (AP) -- St. Bonaventure women's basketball coach Jim Crowley knows many Bonnies fans had difficulty envisioning his team having a chance at an NCAA tournament appearance.
Crowley acknowledges he had his doubts, too, particularly five years ago when there were questions about whether his contract would be renewed.
"You always think big," Crowley said earlier this week. "But you've got to live in reality. ... I'm certainly glad that they allowed me to stay, and supported me."
The school's patience, coupled with the arrival of athletic director Steve Watson in 2007, has certainly paid off for the Bonnies women, who prepare to make their tournament debut on Sunday.
That's when No. 21 St. Bonaventure (29-3), the fifth seed in the Raleigh Region, plays Atlantic Sun Conference champion Florida Gulf Coast University (29-2) at Tallahassee, Fla.
"It validates a lot," Crowley said. "To be honest, over the last few years, we've thought we were capable. I've really looked and said, 'I've got to believe we're one of the best 64 teams in the country.' So it's gratifying to be included in that."
The Bonnies' emergence is a major step for an Atlantic 10 Conference program that had very little history of success. The women's team enjoyed 13 winning seasons in its first 36 years since it first began play in 1972. And that includes going a combined 53-114 during Crowley's first six seasons after taking over in 2000.
"We were terrible," Crowley said.
Now they're terrific.
They're coming off a season in which they've already eclipsed the program's single-season record for victories (23), enjoyed a team best 18-game winning streak and went 14-0 in sweeping to win their first conference regular-season title. The Bonnies only recent blemish was a 56-53 loss to Dayton in the conference tournament championship game two weeks ago.
This year's success, which included the Bonnies ranking as high as 16th, follows a turnaround that began with a 16-15 finish in 2006-07. It was the team's first winning record under Crowley, and the start of a six-year run of winning seasons in which they've gone a combined 130-63, and made three WNIT appearances.
Crowley chalks it up to a wake-up call he had as a result of his job-security worries that led to a change in his coaching and recruiting philosophy.
Rather than going after the same recruits most schools were attempting to land, he settled on focusing on those who fell through the cracks. And he used those players to create a team-first approach.
"To be where we were, truthfully, I was not great at my craft," he said. "And to have players struggle because I wasn't better is something that will always bother me."
He's doing fine now.
This year's team is led by the senior tandem of all-purpose forward Megan Van Tatenhove and outside shooting specialist Jessica Jenkins.
Van Tatenhove was the AP's Wisconsin player of the year, but the 6-foot-1 player was overlooked early in the recruiting process because of her lack of size to play forward. She's become only the ninth player in school history to have 1,000 career points and 500 rebounds.
Jenkins was an All-Ohio first-teamer in high school, but there were questions of whether she could play point guard. Crowley converted her into a shooting guard, and Jenkins holds the school record with 331 3-point baskets, ranking her 13th on the NCAA list.
"He recruits gym rats," said Watson, the Bonnies athletic director. "He identifies kids that are not necessarily the prototypical basketball players, but they fit the system."
Watson was a Crowley fan the first time he saw the women play, scoring an upset 56-50 win at Michigan in December 2006, just before he officially took over the program.
"I'm in the stands thinking, 'This is the guy people are saying maybe we shouldn't be extending?'" Watson said. "And I thought, you've got to be kidding me. We've got to ride this horse.'"
Watson rewarded Crowley with a contract extension the following year.
"What a great decision that was," Watson said this week. "We're lucky to have him. I hope he's our coach for as long as he wants to coach."