Courtesy of BucknellBison.com
LEWISBURG, Pa. — In front of more than 4,200 frenzied fans in Sojka Pavilion, the Bucknell men’s basketball team used a dominant second half to defeat Lehigh 81-65 Wednesday night and win its fifth Patriot League Tournament title. The Bison will be headed to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in school history, and for the first time since 2013.
Patriot League Tournament MVP Zach Thomas finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, and he recorded his 1,000th career point in the midst of Bucknell’s game-changing second-half run. Thomas totaled 53 points, 19 rebounds, 17 assists and five steals in the three postseason games. Kimbal Mackenzie (18), Nana Foulland (17) and Stephen Brown (12) also reached double figures for the top-seeded Bison, who improved to 26-8 and broke a school record with its 15th home victory of the season.
Bucknell held a 35-34 lead at halftime and outscored third-seeded Lehigh (20-12) 46-31 in the second half. The Bison led by as many as 19 points and outscored the Mountain Hawks by 21 points over the final 24:09 of the game.
“I can’t express how happy I am for our guys, who worked so hard day in and day out and really wanted this championship,” said head coach Nathan Davis, who went to two NCAA Tournaments with Bucknell as an assistant coach in 2005 and 2006. “We are going to take a few days and enjoy this, and once we find out our matchup on Sunday night we will get back down to business and try to advance as far as we can in the NCAA Tournament.”
Tim Kempton, who set the Patriot League Tournament record for rebounds with 40 total boards in Lehigh’s three games, led the Mountain Hawks with 22 points and 17 rebounds. Kyle Leufroy added 14 points and Austin Price 11 for the Lehigh, which had beat Bucknell both times during the regular season.
The final four minutes of the first half proved to be a key juncture of the contest. Foulland picked up his second foul guarding Kempton in the lane, and the two ensuing free throws gave Lehigh a 30-25 lead at the 4:09 mark, the largest margin for either side to that point.
But with Foulland on the bench, the Bison closed the half on a 10-4 run to regain the lead. Thomas hit a 3-pointer out of the left corner to get the run going. Nate Sestina, who came up with eight big points off the bench, put back his own miss, and Brown hit a tough runner in the lane to tie the game at 32. After a Kempton dunk, Avi Toomer closed out the half with a 3-pointer to make it 35-34 at the break.
Toomer’s trey would eventually turn into a 15-0 run, as the Bison stormed out of the locker room with 12 more in a row. Foulland started it off with a 3-point play. Thomas scored in the lane and then fed Foulland for a jam. After another Thomas layup, Mackenzie knocked down a 3-pointer, and all the sudden it was a 13-point game at 47-34.
The lead ballooned to 18 after back-to-back 3-pointers by Mackenzie and Brown, both assisted by Thomas.
Lehigh did climb back within nine at 61-52 after a pair of Kempton free throws with five minutes to play, but in one of the biggest plays of the night, Mackenzie drove hard down the lane for a 3-point play that ended Bucknell’s scoring drought of over three minutes.
Lehigh never got closer than 10 the rest of the way. After the Bison dribbled out the final seconds, the 1,000 Bucknell students in attendance stormed the floor and celebrated with a team that was on a mission to get over the hump after suffering upsets as the No. 1 seed in each of the previous two seasons.
“Our guys did an unbelievable job locking in defensively,” said Davis. “Lehigh is an exceptional offensive team. But we guarded the ball really well tonight, which meant that we didn’t have to give a lot of help and could stay home on their 3-point shooters. Offensively, when you look at the stats and see that we had 23 assists and only five turnovers, that tells you that we moved the ball really well and got good shots almost every time down. We made a lot of winning plays.”
Bucknell shot 47.2 percent for the game and hit 8 of 24 from 3-point range. Lehigh shot 45.0 percent and hit 4 of 14 from the arc after going 19-for-36 in the two regular-season games.
Bucknell’s 23 assists came on 34 made field goals, and the five assists equaled a season low. Toomer set career highs with six assists and nine rebounds, and Thomas turned in his fifth game of the year with at least seven assists from his power forward spot. All told, Bucknell’s starting backcourt tallied 13 assists and only one turnover.
Thomas, Foulland and Mackenzie were Bucknell’s representatives on the All-Tournament Team, while Kempton and Austin Price were Lehigh’s selections.
Thomas became the 41st member of Bucknell’s 1,000-point club, joining his classmate Foulland, who reached the milestone earlier in the season. Foulland went over the 1,200-point mark, moving past Dan Bowen and Joe Steiner into 19th place on the all-time scoring list.
The NCAA Tournament bracket will be revealed Sunday at 5:30 p.m. on CBS. Bucknell previously went to the “Big Dance” in 1987, 1989, 2005, 2006, 2011 and 2013. Wednesday’s victory over Lehigh came on the 30th anniversary of Bucknell’s East Coast Conference championship victory over Towson in 1987, which sent the Bison into the NCAA field for the first time.