LEWISBURG, Pa. — The ultimate bracket buster is back in the NCAA tournament: Bucknell.
Yes, Bucknell – the team that stunned Kansas six years ago in the first round of the NCAAs.
Mike Muscala scored 18 points and the Bison shut down Lafayette in the second half of a 72-57 victory Friday to win the Patriot League championship and the conference’s automatic bid.
Bryson Johnson added 15 points and Cameron Ayers had 12 for the top-seeded Bison (25-8), who earned their first trip to the NCAAs since 2006. Back then, they developed a reputation as giant killers with tournament upsets of the Jayhawks in 2005 and Arkansas the following year.
“I signed up here to be a winner,” said senior reserve G.W. Boon, who added eight points and five boards. “Now, I have a chance to write my own legacy.”
Jared Mintz scored 16 points to lead the sixth-seeded Leopards (13-19), the lowest-seeded team to make the tournament final.
Breaking through against Bucknell at rowdy Sojka Pavilion proved to be too tough a task for Lafayette, as the Bison opened a 16-point lead with less than 5 minutes left, when scads of orange-clad fans began celebrating early.
“It’s nice to reward the fans … and the people who gave me the opportunity to come to Bucknell to continue and write our own legacy,” said third-year coach Dave Paulsen.
Ayers hit from 15 feet out to open a 10-point lead for Bucknell, then sank a 3-pointer from the right wing with the shot clock winding down to give the Bison a 57-46 lead with 8:30 left.
The Leopards were overwhelmed from there, held to 8-of-26 shooting (31 percent) in the second half, and 34 percent for the game.
Lafayette hadd narrowed an 11-point deficit to 47-42 with 13:40 left on Tony Johnson’s layup before Bucknell pulled away for good.
“They turned up their defense,” said Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon. “When you get behind a team like Bucknell with their ability to handle the basketball and spread us, it’s just hard to come back.”
Especially against a Bison squad that was limiting opponents to 39 percent shooting from the field, the stingiest in the Patriot League. Paulsen lauds his team for its hard practice sessions and concentration on playing possession-by-possession.
Paulsen’s crew lived up to its reputation, while Lafayette lost in its second consecutive trip to the conference finals.
“One of the big things was we we’ve got to get three consecutive stops,” the coach said. “How many times can we get three consecutive stops … and we needed some timely baskets, too.”
With his team down by 16 with 1:32 left, O’Hanlon pulled his best player, Mintz. He soon followed suit by resting his starters the rest of the way, exchanging bear hugs with each player before they took a seat.
Tony Johnson added 12 points and Jim Mower had 11 for Lafayette.
“They’re a disciplined team, and it’s hard to get back in the game at their home, where their fans are loud,” Tony Johnson said.
And creative, too. One Bison follower held up a sign that read “Even Sheen Picks Bucknell” in reference to actor Charlie Sheen after fans stormed the court following the final buzzer.
The 6-foot-11 Muscala was selected the tournament’s MVP. No wonder, with a mid-range jumper that made him a tough matchup for opposing defenders. Fans cried out “Moooose” nearly every time he touched the ball.
The sophomore will help send seniors like Boon and fifth-year swingman Stephen Tyree on a high note.
“I’m not feeling anything right now. I’m numb,” said ecstatic fifth-year player Tyree, sitting next to the tournament trophy. “It’s been a long road.”