Bucknell grabs first in the Patriot League with win at Lehigh

Courtesy of Patriot League Athletics
Courtesy of Patriot League Athletics

By Paul Gotham

BETHLEHEM, PA – In a battle of Patriot League heavyweights, the Bucknell Bison got in the last haymaker Monday night.

Cameron Ayers sealed victory as the Bucknell Bison defeated the Lehigh Mountain Hawks 61-55 at Stabler Arena Monday night.

Up three with the shot clock winding down Ayers drove the lane and scored off the glass over Lehigh’s Anthony D’Orazio to give the Bison a two-possession advantage with 13 seconds remaining in the game.

“I wasn’t really hitting my outside shot,” Ayers said of his late bucket. “I was just trying to get to the rim. Luckily that scoop shot went in for us.”

Ayers capped a second half which saw seven lead changes and four ties.

Down 35-34, Ben Brackney and Bryson Johnson spurred a 15-4 run midway through the second half as the Bison grabbed a lead they never surrendered.

Brackney nailed a catch-and-shoot from the left corner for a 37-35 edge.

After D’Orazio tied the game on a basket off an inbound play, Johnson drained two straight from long range. His second in transition from Steven Kaspar brought a timeout from the Lehigh bench.

“I missed some shots in the first half that I should have made,” Johnson explained. “My teammates kept encouraging me and my coaches…We’ll take good ones. It’s just the flow of the game.”

Mike Muscala stretched the lead with a traditional three-point play. After fighting for position on the block, Muscala took advantage of ball reversal to get a seal in the post, and Kaspar lofted a pass that the 6-11 center took and finished despite D’Orazio trying to double team from the baseline.   One free throw later, and Bucknell led 45-37.

“I told the guys at halftime when we look back on the season, this is probably the most important 20 minutes that we played,” Muscala commented. “I’m so proud of all the guys. We just battled out there.”

Saddled with foul troubles in the first half, Bucknell’s leading scorer dropped a dozen, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked four shots.

Brackney and Johnson hit two more 3-pointers to give Bucknell its largest lead of the game at 52-41 with 8:41 remaining.

But the Mountain Hawks responded.

Led by an 11-point outburst from Holden Greiner, Lehigh had a chance to tie the game in the closing moments.

Greiner started with a runner in the lane. Then he backed down Brackney using a drop step. His rebound, putback and free throw cut the Bucknell lead to single digits. The senior forward followed with a jab step and spin move for a bucket. When he drove cross the lane for a deuce, Greiner sliced the Bucknell to four at 52-48 and brought a Bison timeout.

“I just told them to guard him,” Bucknell head coach Dave Paulsen quipped. “There’s a lot of give and take when you’re playing Lehigh. If you’re going to play that tight on the perimeter shooters, then there’s a lot of one-on-one play opportunities.”

Ryan Frazier and Johnson scored baskets in traffic to push the Bucknell lead to 58-51 with 1:41 to go.

Greiner used another spin move to score and created space with a ball screen on the wing for D’Orazio to get in the lane and cut the lead to three with 51 seconds left on the clock.

Lehigh, which hit 10-of-18 behind the arc in 65-62 victory at Bucknell on January 27, managed to connect just one time in 15 tries from long range Monday night.

“We paid better attention to staying a little closer to the perimeter shooters,” Johnson explained. “It was similar game plan as last time. I think we just executed it better…They are tough guys to guard because they can shoot, and they’re really good off the bounce.”

“Let’s be real honest about this,” noted Lehigh head coach Brett Reed. “If I would have told you that we shot six-for-15 from the free throw line and one-for-15 from three, and say that we’d be right there in the game, you’d laugh at me…Yet we were one or two possessions from winning the game.”

Mackey McKnight sparked a 6-0 run to close the first half as the Mountain Hawks took their first lead of the game. The junior guard finished a drive in the lane to cut Bucknell’s lead to three at 23-20.

On the next trip, McKnight and Gabe Knutson combined on a pick-and-roll in transition for the deuce. McKnight capped the run when Holden Greiner grabbed a loose ball and led him into the open floor for the layup and the 24-23 halftime count.

Bucknell scored the contest’s first seven points. Mike Muscala nailed a baseline jumper. Joe Wilman followed with a near carbon copy of his teammate from the left end-line. Cameron Ayers pulled up for three in transition for the early advantage.

Knutson drove across the lane for a layup, and McKnight went end-to-end to cut the lead to four at 9-5.

Muscala went to the bench with his second foul at the 12:35 mark.

Brian Fitzpatrick and Steven Kaspar helped the Bison keep their advantage.

Kaspar caught a pass on the right side of the lane, took one dribble toward the baseline and dished to Fitzpatrick for an easy lay-in.

After McKnight finished in traffic and Stefan Cvrkalj hit a pair of charity tosses cutting the lead to four, the Bison grabbed their largest lead of the stanza.

Kaspar hit Fitzpatrick for a baseline jumper. On the next trip, Fitzpatrick converted a rebound and putback. Bucknell led 19-11.

“In a game like this it’s like a prize fight,” Paulsen said. “Whoever can absorb one more body blow down the stretch is the one who’s going to win.  They absorbed a few more body blows a month ago in Lewisburg. We absorbed one or more here tonight.”

Johnson led all scorers with 19 going six-of-13 from the field including three-of-eight behind the arc and four-of-four at the free throw line.

Kaspar had a career-high seven assists.

Fitzpatrick corralled a game-high and career-high 10 rebounds.

Greiner and McKnight led the Mountain Hawks with 17 each.

Bucknell outrebounded Lehigh, 42-35.

Lehigh outscored Bucknell in the paint, 38-20.

Muscala played just seven minutes in the first half.

The visiting team has won five straight times in the head-to-head series.

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