Courtesy of BucknellBison.com
LEWISBURG, Pa. – Now the winningest player in Bucknell basketball history, Cameron Ayers scored 17 points, including the game-clinching free throw with eight seconds to play, to lead suddenly red-hot Bucknell to a 65-61 victory over Lehigh on Wednesday night at Sojka Pavilion. The win was Bucknell’s fifth in a row, and at 15-13 overall and 10-7 in the Patriot League the Bison have secured the No. 4 seed and will host No. 5 Army in next Wednesday’s Patriot League Tournament quarterfinal round.
Bucknell’s bench has been a critical part of this winning streak, and Wednesday was no different as Cory Starkey (eight points, six rebounds), John Azzinaro (nine points) and D.J. MacLeay (two points, eight rebounds) all made major contributions. Along with a game-high nine rebounds from Brian Fitzpatrick, the Bison finished with a 49-34 rebounding edge and they are now plus-67 on the glass during this five-game winning streak.
“We have rebounded very well since we started playing bigger,” said head coach Dave Paulsen. “After the Holy Cross game (a 66-50 loss on Feb. 9) we said if we are going to lose, we are going to go down fighting. At times we looked a little ugly offensively tonight, but we are fine with that as long as we continue to be tenacious defensively and on the glass. Once again Cory Starkey and D.J. MacLeay brought us great energy off the bench.”
Bucknell spotted Lehigh an early eight-point lead after Chuku and Prince canned two 3-pointers apiece in first six minutes of the game. But the Bison stiffened defensively in the last 10 minutes of the half, and they took a 29-28 lead to the locker room after Chris Hass (12 points) beat the buzzer with a left-wing trey.
Azzinaro scored all nine of his points in a four-minute stretch in the second half. He nailed two deep threes and then sunk all three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt. Those charity tosses gave Bucknell a 47-40 cushion with 10:32to play.
Lehigh fought within one at 50-49 on a Corey Schaefer layup, but the Bison would never relinquish the lead. Ayers answered with two free throws – the latter marked his 1,500th career point – and then Steven Kaspar went to work. Twice the junior point guard slashed down the lane and dished to Starkey for easy layups, and Kaspar scored himself on a twirling layup in transition to restore the seven-point lead.
Chuku hit a big 3-pointer with 3:05 to play, and then Price’s traditional 3-point play a minute later brought Lehigh within 61-59. Inside two minutes remaining Ayers hit two free throws, and then Fitzpatrick made 1 of 2 at the line after he was fouled going for a defensive rebound.
Mackey McKnight scored on a drive with 1:01 to play to make it 64-61, and Bucknell used up most of the shot clock at the other end. Hass had a good look on a jumper in the key but it rimmed out. Fitzpatrick got the rebound but was stripped by McKnight on the way back up. After a scramble on the floor Lehigh was given a timeout, and the Mountain Hawks had a possession down three with 17 seconds left.
McKnight looked to drive but he was cut off by Starkey, and McKnight lost control of the ball for a turnover. Ayers was fouled on the ensuing inbounds, and the made the first of two free throws with eight ticks remaining to make it a two-possession game.
“This was a good win in February against a very good offensive team,” said Paulsen. “We really defended in the last eight to nine minutes of the first half and then for the vast majority of the second half. Our guards did a great job defensively on Mackey McKnight who can drive the ball as well as anyone in the league and also on their shooters. Lehigh makes you make tough decisions defensively because they can penetrate, they have outstanding shooters and they can score in the post.”
The Bison were able to win on a night when they shot just 33.3 percent from the field and made 5 of 20 attempts from 3-point range. They countered that with 18 offensive rebounds and 16 free throws. Bucknell was also opportunistic defensively, turning 11 Lehigh turnovers into 19 points.
Lehigh shot 37.3 percent from the floor and was 7-for-18 from 3-point range and 10-for-11 from the foul line.
Kaspar finished with eight points, five rebounds and four assists, and Ayers also had four assists without a turnover in 36 minutes.
Ayers and fellow seniors Fitzpatrick, Ben Brackney and Ryan Hill, picked up their school-record 93rd victory, surpassing the previous mark of 92 set by the Class of 2013. Ayers has played in every one of those 93 wins.
Ayers now has 1,505 career points. He passed Bill Courtney for ninth place on Bucknell’s all-time list and is 13 behind Mike Joseph for the No. 8 spot.
McKnight dished his fifth assist of the game and 567th of his career with 12:48 left in the second half to pass Marquis Hall and become Lehigh’s all-time leader in career helpers.
The Bison split the season series with Lehigh and now stand 99-63 all-time against the Mountain Hawks.
Bucknell entered the night in a tie for fourth place with Army. While the Bison were winning in Lewisburg, Army dropped a 71-70 heartbreaker to Boston University when a last-second shot was overturned on video review.
The Bison own the tiebreaker over the Black Knights, meaning Bucknell is now locked into the No. 4 seed and Army is assured the No. 5 spot for the Patriot League Tournament quarterfinals. The Bison topped Army 78-70 in last year’s semifinal round.
First Bucknell must conclude the regular season at second-place American on Saturday at 2 p.m. That contest will air live on CBS Sports Network. American is one game behind league-leading Boston University with one game to play, but if the Eagles top Bucknell and the Terriers lose at Holy Cross on Saturday, American would earn the No. 1 seed.